Researcher working to relaunch quantum experiment destroyed in Nasa rocket explosion

SINGAPORE - The unexpected crash of a space rocket may have temporarily dashed the hopes of Singapore scientist Dr Alex Ling and his team of getting their experiment into space.

But the 38-year-old from the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) still has high hopes of making a major breakthrough in quantum cryptography, which involves the transmission of secret information using light particles.

Had Dr Ling's device launched successfully, it would have gone on to test whether entangled light particles can be produced in space.

"We still have all the designs for the instrument," said Dr Ling, who estimates it would take his team of five about eight weeks to rebuild it.

"The setback now is having to wait another year to launch it."

The experiment, which was mounted on a small satellite, was designed to operate for 18 weeks, after which it would have re-entered the earth's atmosphere. It was to be the first of a series of short nano-satellite missions, testing the instrument under different conditions and designs.

Dr Ling is hoping to launch a similar experiment in a different orbit next year, with a satellite built by the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The unmanned cargo rocket carrying Dr Ling's experiment was launched on Wednesday from Virginia in the United States by the US space agency Nasa (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). It burst into flames and crashed to earth in 11 seconds.

To Dr Ling's knowledge, this would have been the first time the fundamental physics of entanglement was tested in space.

If successful, the experiment could have a profound impact on how coded data is sent over global distances.

Dr Ling had told The Straits Times last October that further down the road, this technology could even be used to protect electronic transactions for the man in the street. While several other groups across the world are also working on global quantum cryptography, Dr Ling's feat was to reduce the quantum entanglement experiment from a standard 30kg to a mere 300g, about the size of a sandwich. This would make it cheaper to launch.

He said that he could not comment about financial losses as he was negotiating with partners on alternative launch plans. His team was awarded over $6 million by the National Research Foundation earlier this month to further their research.

The centre's director, Professor Artur Ekert, 53, said of Dr Ling: "Alex has a great vision for advancing quantum technology. We are proud of what he has achieved.

"Science is full of surprises, good and bad," he added.

"We will keep going and we will get his experiment into orbit."

Dr Ling did his PhD in experimental quantum optics at NUS, graduating in 2008. He then did a two-year stint as a research associate at the University of Maryland in the US.

He returned to Singapore in 2010 to work at the centre, and is also an assistant professor with the NUS physics department.

oliviaho@sph.com.sg