Monday, August 15, 2016

China Launches World's First Quantum Communications Satellite into Space

A Long March 2D rocket blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Aug. 15, carrying the Quantum Science Satellite. Photo Credit: Xinhua

Chinese Long March 2D rocket has successfully lifted off on Monday, Aug. 15, carrying the Quantum Science Satellite – the world’s first spacecraft expected to achieve quantum communications between space and Earth. Launch took place at 1:40 p.m. EDT (17:40 GMT), from the LC43 complex at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert.

After liftoff, the Long March 2D rocket commenced its short vertical ascent before it turned southwest. The flight lasted about ten minutes ending in successful spacecraft separation.

The mission was initially scheduled for July 2016 but was delayed to August. A notification about the upcoming launch was released just days before liftoff. The satellite arrived at Jiuquan on July 8.

The Quantum Science Satellite, also known as the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS), was nicknamed “Micius” after a fifth century B.C. Chinese scientist named Mozi (Micius in Latin). He discovered 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," said Pan Jianwei, quantum communication satellite project chief scientist.

Built by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the Micius satellite weighs around 1,100 lbs. (500 kilograms). It is fitted with two deployable solar arrays and is designed to be operational for up to two years. The spacecraft is equipped in a quantum key communicator, a quantum entanglement emitter, quantum entanglement source, quantum experiment controller and processor, and high-speed coherent laser communicator.

Xinhua press agency reports that the satellite will conduct experiments on high-speed quantum key distribution between the satellite and ground stations. It will also explore quantum teleportation for the first time in the world. All the operations will be performed from a sun-synchronous circular orbit at an altitude of 373 miles (600 kilometers), inclined 97.79 degrees.

In particular, in order to achieve its planned goals, Micius is expected set up an ultra-long-range quantum channel between ground and satellite with the assistance of high-precision acquisition, tracking and pointing system and implement a quantum key distribution between the satellite and the ground stations. Moreover, the spacecraft will test quantum teleportation by using entangled photons plus data on their quantum states to reconstruct the photons in an identical quantum state in different location.

The mission will also set a global-scale quantum communication network for quantum communication, using the satellite repeater and two arbitrary quantum ground stations and their auxiliary local-area fiber quantum networks. Furthermore, the quantum entanglement distribution from satellite to two ground stations in China and Europe will be tested as the scientists are hoping to study the entanglement properties at a large scale and nonlocality of quantum mechanics. China hopes that if the satellite works well, it will pave the way to a hack-proof communication system.

Austria is also participating in this mission as the country’s academy of sciences provided the optical receivers for the European ground stations. According to GB Times, a six-unit CubeSat, named ³Cat-2, developed by the Nanosat lab of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Spain was also launched on the Long March 2D rocket as a secondary payload. The CubeSat, weighing about 15.4 lbs. (7.1 kilograms), will be used for Earth-observing purposes.

The Long March 2D, used for Monday’s mission, is a two-stage rocket developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology. It is mainly used to launch a variety of satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO). The 135-foot (41.15-meter) tall booster can launch payloads of up to 3.9 tons (3.5 metric tons) to LEO and has an SSO capability of up to 1.4 tons (1.3 metric tons).

The rocket was launched for the first time on August 9, 1992, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. It orbited the Fanhui Shei Weixing FSW-2-1 recoverable satellite.

Monday’s launch marked the 234th flight of the Long March rocket and the 12th orbital mission conducted by China this year. It was also the fourth liftoff from Jiuquan in 2016.

Later this year, China plans to return to human space flight. Shenzhou-11, a planned crewed mission, is slated to lift off from Jiuquan and dock with China’s upcoming second space lab, Tiangong-2, which should be in orbit by the time the crew’s Shenzhou spacecraft is sent aloft. Tiangong-2 is targeted for September while Shenzhou-11 is currently scheduled for October. However, the exact launch dates for these missions have yet to be released.

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