It's one small step for a shoebox-sized satellite, and one giant leap for Earth's future quantum computing network.
An international team of scientists announced this week that they've put the first components of a quantum computing network into orbit around the Earth. If quantum computing is indeed the Next Big Thing -- and pretty much everyone agrees that it is -- then a global quantum network is the Next Next Big Thing.
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A quick primer: Quantum computing refers to a brain-bending technique by which information is stored in the entangled quantum states of subatomic particles. It's a fundamentally different kind of computing than our current binary digital model. The technology promises future computers about 13 kajillion times faster and more powerful than what we have now. That's technical jargon, of course.
As with traditional computers, quantum computers will want to communicate with one another over a network -- ideally a global and massively complex network such as the internet. That's where the satellite project comes in. If quantum computers on the ground can efficiently communicate with quantum network nodes in orbit, we'll have a new kind of internet that makes our current model look like a 1971 Pinto.
Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the University of Strathclyde, UK, have become the first to successfully test technology for satellite-based quantum network nodes. The small device they recently put into orbit -- inside a "nanosatellite" about the size of a shoebox -- demonstrates that critical components for a future quantum satellite network can function in space.
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Local quantum networks already exist, but there's a distance issue. Signal loss limits quantum information sent through the air or fiber optic cables to a few hundred kilometers. But with a working quantum satellite network, we could potentially beam quantum-state information from satellite to satellite, connecting nodes on opposite sides of the planet.
Although entangled photons from satellites still have to travel through the atmosphere, the trip is roughly equivalent to going only 10 kilometers at ground level, according to press materials.
In the official news release, director of the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore, Artur Ekert, praised the orbital quantum team for "taking entanglement, literally, to a new level." (See what he did there?)
"Their experiments will pave the road to secure quantum communication and distributed quantum computation on a global scale."
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