It has been a while since cyber and space were recognized as rising domains in both the economic and national security arenas. It is natural that the more popular each of these two domains becomes individually, the more attention the integrated domain captures from the public. One of those areas is satellite-to-ground quantum communication, and today many Indo-Pacific nations have joined the race to develop related technologies.
Quantum communication through satellite transmission is, in simple terms, the mixture of two distinct technological realms: quantum mechanics-based communication and satellite communication (SATCOM). The former is enabled by the transmission of information-carrying photons (particles of light) and cryptographic methods (such as quantum key distribution), and is often referred to as “unhackable.” Due to the law of quantum mechanics, the status of the photons used for the communication transforms and generates a warning signal when a hacker attempts to steal information. Given the increasing demand for secure communication in general, this technology is considered one of the most promising solutions for the future.
The global SATCOM market has been growing, mainly due to the expansion of space activities in general but also as a result of rising service demands from organizations such as national defense institutions, commercial airlines, and oil and gas companies. These organizations require communication services in remote areas – where fiber networks or cell towers are rarely available – to boost operational efficiency, ensure work safety, and provide employees and passengers with Internet access.
One noteworthy fact is that quantum communication and space-based networks can function in a complementary manner. The key challenge of quantum communication is distance, which causes a scattered communication signal inside optical fiber or in the atmosphere. However, if a communication link is built in a vacuum (such as outer space), signal decay can be reduced. Likewise, as many SATCOM providers’ awareness of cyber threats has increased, secure quantum communication can be an option for the future. The compatibility of these two technologies motivates further development of integrated solutions.
While Western nations certainly have a proven research and development (R&D) history in this field, the related efforts of Indo-Pacific nations are not negligible. There is no doubt that China raised the profile of this field after it became the first nation to establish a quantum network between Earth’s surface and its satellite and teleport a photon. The same satellite – named after the famous Chinese philosopher, Micius – even connected two research facilities in China and Austria, allowing them to conduct a video conference in 2017.
According to some experts, China’s interest in secure communication rose particularly after former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the United States’ intelligence activities in China in 2013. The incident motivated China to choose quantum communication as one of its key counterespionage tools. China listed quantum communication and computing as one of the science priority areas in its 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) and aims to cover the world with the network. The next communication experiment with Micius is expected in fall 2018 in coordination with Italy.
Singapore is another Indo-Pacific frontrunner in satellite-based quantum communication. A nanosatellite carrying a quantum node was developed by the National University of Singapore and launched by an Indian vehicle in 2015, even before the launch of the Chinese Micius in 2016. The nanosatellite successfully created photons that can be utilized to establish a quantum network between space and ground.
Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), the nation’s primary R&D agency in the field of information and communications, successfully conducted a space-to-ground quantum communication demonstration with a microsatellite in summer 2017. While China was ahead of Japan with its Micius communication experiment, NICT is proud of its technology, which is capable of performing similar tests using a smaller satellite. In light of the market-wide increases in the costs of satellite launching, manufacturing, and operation, small payloads with high performance will become more competitive and create a lot more potential for satellite applications.
India has also expressed passion for related research. India’s two research agencies funded by the national government, the Raman Research Institute in Bengaluru and the India Space Research Organization, signed a memorandum of understanding in late 2017 to build a quantum communication network through satellite. This is India’s first step in the field, and the nation will accelerate efforts to materialize its unique payload.
Although South Korean scientists are concerned by the lack of government support for wireless quantum communication R&D, its private sector is energetic in leading related efforts. Won-Sic Hahn, CEO of the country’s only satellite service provider KT SAT, commented that it will take advantage of the technological compatibility between satellite networks and quantum cryptography and will focus on developing competitive services.
Several media outlets have reported that North Korea announced that it also entered into the development of quantum communication technologies. Although it is unclear how far North Korea has come in terms of the development phases and whether the nation has enough resources to explore satellite-link options, an expert insisted that it will not be surprising if North Korea makes a follow-up announcement in the future. The expert also noted that if North Korea finds a way to adopt such technologies for military operations earlier than South Korea, it could destabilize the balance of power on the peninsula.
Now, is satellite-to-ground quantum communication really hack-proof? According to experts, the technology has not yet reached that point. While quantum mechanics itself theoretically should be able to enable the safest communication, there are still challenges to establishing a long-distance network without any vulnerabilities in devices or software. Reducing the costs for constructing and running such a network is another issue. Further R&D efforts are required to apply the technology to everyday life.
Yet, having all of these Indo-Pacific nations already participating in the development race, a variety of technological solutions and application ideas are on the horizon. This is especially true because both quantum cryptography and SATCOM are such significant technologies impacting economic activities and national defense. Any further innovations in the fields will even become a critical factor to shape power dynamics in the region and beyond.
Mayuko Yatsu is project manager/senior research analyst at Washington CORE, L.L.C.