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Scott Kelly/NASA via AP

The first entangled pair of photons has been sent from an orbiting satellite to Earth, scientists reported today. It's a step toward sending quantum keys from satellites — an approach that has been heralded as a secure way to encrypt communications because they can't be cracked by ever-improving computer algorithms.

What they did: A laser on China's Micius satellite, which launched last year and is dedicated to studying quantum satellite communications, spit out pairs of entangled photons from its position 500 km above Earth. Two telescopes on Earth - about 1200 km apart — then had 5 minutes each day to look for them as the satellite passed over both telescopes. They found that paired photons survived the journey through Earth's atmosphere and detected 1 entangled pair per second out of the 6 million sent in that time.

How this all works: Two people looking to communicate would first generate a quantum key. One person receives one of the entangled photons in the pair and the other person gets the other. When they measure the photons they receive, they obtain bits of information that are strung together to create a key that they then both have and can use to encrypt and decrypt a message. A portion of the key can be shared publicly to check if it has been compromised - if someone tries to intercept the communication at any point, they would then see a difference between their strings.

The real problem: The feat, while an important proof of concept, doesn't address one of the biggest problems with quantum communications, says Caltech's John Preskill. These messages currently can't be sent long distances.

Using an optical fiber, photons carrying a quantum signal can only make it about 100 km before the light dissipates. Similar to optical telecommunications here on Earth, quantum systems need repeaters that can amplify the message so it can be passed long distances. But amplifying a quantum message in the same way we do optical ones would effectively destroy it. That's why researchers are eyeing satellite-based communication. The reported 500 km from space is an improvement over optical and another study published today measured quantum signals from a satellite 38,000 km away to a single point but in deploying a global network, which would likely combine optical fiber and satellites, the repeater problem stands.

A prediction: Preskill says it is more likely we will first come up with another form of encryption for communication. "There will be other ways of doing classical public key crypto systems that we won't know how to break with quantum computers."

Go deeper

Updated 4 mins ago - World

Myanmar's deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to 4 years in prison

An anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar.Photo: Hkun Lat/Getty Images

A Myanmar court sentenced the country's ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Monday to four years in prison on charges of "inciting public unrest" and breaking COVID-19 protocols, per the New York Times.

Why it matters: It's the first of several verdicts that could result in the 76-year-old Nobel laureate being imprisoned for the rest of her life.

2 hours ago - World

Pope Francis denounces European governments' migrant response

Pope Francis adresses refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on Sunday. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis criticized European countries' response to migrants and asylum seekers during his visit to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos Sunday.

Why it matters: The pope said "migration is a humanitarian crisis that concerns everyone," but little had changed in the global response to displaced peoples since his first visit to Lesbos five years ago, per a transcript of his remarks. "Human lives, real people, are at stake. ... let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!"

Chris Cuomo accuser: On-air "hypocrisy" spurred report

Journalist Chris Cuomo. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

A woman who accused fired CNN journalist Chris Cuomo of sexual misconduct said Sunday she decided to come forward after learning of his comments about women who made similar accusations about his brother. He denies her allegations.

Why it matters: Her attorney Debra Katz said in a statement that she heard "the hypocrisy" of his on-air words about his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and was "disgusted by his efforts to try to discredit these women," so "retained counsel to report his serious sexual misconduct against her to CNN."

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