BEIJING • China has launched the world's first quantum satellite, which will help it establish "hack- proof" communications between space and the ground. The launch puts China far ahead of its global rivals in one of science's most challenging fields.
Scientists in the US, Europe, Japan and elsewhere are rushing to exploit the strange and potentially powerful properties of sub-atomic particles, but few with as much state support as those in China, researchers told The Wall Street Journal.
Nicknamed "Micius" after the ancient Chinese philosopher (490- 403 BC) , the 600kg satellite was fired from a Long March-2D rocket at 1.40am yesterday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the remote province of Gansu.
Micius, better known as Mo Zi in China, was the scientist who discovered more than 2,000 years ago that light travels in straight lines and was likely the first person to record an image with a pinhole.
"Just like the Galileo satellites and Kepler telescopes, we used the name of a famous scholar for our first quantum satellite. We hope this will promote and boost confidence in Chinese culture," Professor Pan Jianwei, the project's chief scientist, told Chinese state media.
The 45-year-old Austria-educated physicist was among the top names who returned to China under the so-called "1,000 talents scheme" to lure back foreign-educated scientists and researchers.
"The newly launched satellite marks a transition in China's role - from a follower in classic information technology development to one of the leaders guiding future achievements," Prof Pan said.
"In the beginning, the technology will be applied in the commercial, finance and military sectors, but this is a scientific breakthrough; anyone can use it," he was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency.
"Five years on, many government agencies will use it. Fifteen years on, it should enter ordinary households with everyone's mobile phone having a quantum chip for information encryption to protect their privacy."
China "can expect a global network of quantum communications to be set up around 2030", he said.
The satellite will attempt to send secure messages between Beijing and Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang in the far west. It will be used in experiments to prove the viability of quantum technology to communicate over long distances.
Success will require the satellite be precisely oriented to its earth- bound receiving stations, Xinhua said. "It will be like tossing a coin from a plane at 100,000m above the sea level exactly into the slot of a rotating piggy bank," it quoted the project's chief commander, Dr Wang Jianyu, as saying.
Beijing has poured enormous resources into the race, one of several cutting-edge projects that the world's second-largest economy has pursued as part of its massive investment in advanced scientific research on everything from asteroid mining to gene manipulation.
Beijing does not disclose how much money it allocates to quantum research, though funding for basic research, which includes quantum physics, was US$101 billion (S$135 billion) last year, up from US$1.9 billion a decade earlier, reported The Wall Street Journal.
The Journal reported that with state support, Prof Pan was able to leapfrog his former PhD adviser, University of Vienna physicist Anton Zeilinger, who said he has tried since 2001 to convince the European Space Agency to launch a similar satellite.
Prof Zeilinger told the newspaper: "In the long run, there is a good chance that this will replace our current communications technology," he said. "I see no basic reason why it won't happen."