The University of Strathclyde is testing a new scheme to create a secure global communications network using quantum encryption technology to protect messages.
The experiment will be based on the Canadian QYESSat (Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite) mission, which will transmit pulses of light to help communicate encrypted messages.
As part of the test, the university will develop the source of quantum signals for the satellite, and will test new ways to distribute quantum encryption keys from space.
Strathclyde will also collaborate with the project’s academic lead, the University of Waterloo in Ontario, on theory and modelling of the quantum payload, as well as developing secure communication protocols based on the new hardware.
The quantum key distribution technology developed in this project is targeted to fly on board QEYSSat, thereby extending the scope of the mission and demonstrating links to ground stations on both sides of the Atlantic. The first prototypes of the UK systems have been delivered and are now undergoing integration testing in Canada.
What is Quantum Cryptography?
Quantum encryption is a new method of protecting data that uses quantum mechanics to prevent messages from being intercepted.
Most modern encryption is based on a key system, similar to passwords used in most everyday security. The key, perhaps a string of random letters and numbers, is used to make the data unreadable to anyone lacking a corresponding key to decrypt the data. To intercept and decipher a message would require either knowing the key or being able to randomly guess it, something far beyond the capabilities of most modern computers.
Quantum computers, however, will have the processing power to brute force certain keys. This is likely to render some encryption methods obsolete, while others will have to become longer and more unwieldy – the equivalent of having to set and remember a password tens of thousands of characters long.
Quantum encryption is one of the methods being touted to compensate for expected advances in computing power. Encryption keys are transmitted between sender and recipient by flashes of light. According to quantum physics, simply observing the photons will affect them. As such, when the key arrives at its destination, the recipient will be able to tell if they have been intercepted.
Satellite-based systems use another feature of quantum mechanics to send keys – entanglement. This allows two separate particles to become linked and exist in the same state, even if they are physically separated.
While this system does not allow two users to send messages, it allows them to share a random sequence of particles that are guaranteed to be identical – effectively providing an encryption key.
China was the first country to demonstrate a working satellite-based quantum encryption system
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UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “We are only at the start of developing quantum technologies, but it is already clear that they offer us a world of opportunity across entire sectors like healthcare, communications and financial services.
“The UK and Canada have a strong collaborative relationship in science and technology. By our businesses and academics working together, these incredible new projects will help us accelerate the development, scale up and commercialisation of quantum technologies, ensuring the UK remains a world-leader in this area.”
The project is one of eight winners of the UK-Canada Quantum Technologies Competition, run jointly by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The winners will share grants worth £2 million from UKRI and C$4.4 million in total investments from Canada.
The overall leader of the project, named RefQ, is Glasgow-based aerospace company Craft Prospect and the University of Bristol is also a partner.
Daniel Oi, Senior Lecturer in Strathclyde’s Department of Physics, is the University’s lead on RefQ. He said: “This project aligns with the efforts to build collaborations between Strathclyde and the University of Waterloo in the area of quantum technologies. Craft Prospect is also a long-term commercial partner with Strathclyde in the development of CubeSat quantum key distribution.
“In addition, RefQ is connected with the UK Quantum Technology Hub in Quantum Communications, in which Strathclyde is a partner, in its mission to launch a CubeSat in 2023-24.”