Europe – and the world – is in the midst of the “quantum decade”: a period in which the peculiar properties of matter that manifest themselves on the smallest scales are being transformed from mere scientific curiosities into the basis of practical technologies and products. The result? Major advances in communications, navigation, computing and environmental sensing.
The same applies to space: ESA is currently sending a quantum probe to Jupiter, developing communications based on quantum technologies and planning to fly a quantum clock to the International Space Station as part of its cross-cutting quantum technology initiative.
Quantum sensor heading to Jupiter
Part of the magnetometer on ESA’s Juice probe, launched to the largest planet in our Solar System in April, the MAGSCA sensor relies on a quantum interference phenomenon to make absolute measurements of magnetic field strength, providing calibration for a larger ‘fluxgate’ pair. conventional. magnetometers. Performing well during commissioning in space, MAGSCA was built for ESA by the Austrian Academy of Sciences in partnership with the Graz University of Technology.
Meanwhile, “quantum entanglement”-based hardware was tested earlier this year aboard an ESA “zero-g” parabolic flight, demonstrating its robustness to changes in gravity.
ESA’s quantum activities are now overseen by its new cross-cutting quantum technology initiative, coordinating all quantum technology R&D taking place across the Agency.
ESA’s quantum vision of the future
“Quantum technology has been defined as a strategic priority in ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher’s Agenda 2025, seen as offering new paths to commercial success and technical leadership, and we are implementing this vision”, explains the systems engineer ESA optoelectronics, Eric Wille.
“In one way or another, ESA has been working on quantum technologies for the last quarter of a century, steadily increasing overall readiness levels and achieving some great successes along the way, including participating in the then-world record for quantum communications.
“This cumulative effort has helped us expand our range of activities and build connections with the quantum research community, most recently through the latest ESA quantum technology conference in September. In short: ESA is really open for business in this field and if you have ideas for research, we want to hear from you!”
Weird Science of the Very Small
Often considered the most successful theory of the last century, quantum physics underpins the functioning of everyday items such as silicon chips, lasers and medical imaging machines. At the heart of this theory is the seemingly counterintuitive fact that, at extremely small scales, atoms, photons and other particles begin to behave like waves.
This, in turn, leads to phenomena such as “quantum superposition”, where a particle can exist in more than one possible state at the same time, and “quantum entanglement”, where multiple particles continue to share identical physical characteristics, even when separated by long distances.
Quantum technologies aim to use this exotic behavior as the basis for more powerful computing, ultra-precise timing, secure information sharing and highly sensitive sensors – while also facing the challenge that quantum states are easily perturbed and prone to collapse.
Quantum communications from space
Among the most mature applications are secure communications based on “quantum key distribution”. Current secure data sharing is based on the sharing of “encryption keys” between the sender and the recipient. Today, these keys are typically shared through classical communication channels using mathematical algorithms or by human messengers.
Alternatively, quantum key distribution is developed where the security of key exchange is based on the quantum physical properties of light particles. The use of laser links in satellites allows them to travel much greater distances compared to optical fibers, where quantum signals are disturbed more quickly.
ESA is collaborating with the European Commission to develop quantum key distribution for government applications, and also through supporting industrial partnerships such as the Eagle-1 mission with satellite manufacturer SES – developing technologies previously promoted through the ESA’s ScyLight program. ESA.
Lessons learned will guide the development and deployment of the European Quantum Communication Infrastructure, which is part of the European Secure Connectivity program.
For more than a quarter of a century, ESA’s Optical Ground Station has supported optical and quantum communication experiments on the slopes of the Mount Teide volcano in Tenerife. Testing quantum connections through the atmosphere via islands – or even satellites in orbit – has already provided a wealth of information.
The lessons learned will guide the development and deployment of the European quantum communications infrastructure, which is part of the EU’s secure connectivity programme.
Quantum states – such as ‘cold atoms’, systematically slowed in their motion using lasers – often turn out to be extremely sensitive to the surrounding environment, so they can be employed for gravity or acceleration mapping, as well as for tracking features of the Earth, including the ocean. and ice flows.
This precise survey would also constitute a step forward in climate modeling, sharpening scientific understanding of phenomena such as the Earth’s water cycle, the mass balance of ice sheets and glaciers and sea level change.
Quantum clocks and frequency standards
Similar systems of laser-slowed cold atoms could serve as the basis for highly accurate clocks for positioning, navigation and timing, offering orders of magnitude improvements over the atomic clocks employed by current satellite navigation systems. They are also important for fundamental physics experiments.
ESA’s suite of atomic clocks on the space payload will become the most accurate clock ever placed in orbit when it is flown aboard the International Space Station in 2025.
Quantum computers are unlikely to fly into space in the near future, but by taking advantage of superposition, they promise greatly improved computing power for specific research or optimization problems.
This technique could be applied to space-related “hard problems,” such as optimizing highly complex megaconstellation operations, high-fidelity simulations of a rocket’s interaction with the atmosphere, or processing Earth observation data to explore large amounts of information more efficiently.
Other areas such as quantum memories, quantum imaging, random number generation and post-quantum cryptography are also part of the more than 40 projects planned by ESA’s transversal quantum technology initiative in the coming years.
High-quality, precision engineering is an essential element of success; Complex optical charges are needed to manipulate systems on the scale of atoms or photons. Accordingly, ESA’s existing optics and optoelectronics laboratory is also being relocated and expanded in a new building at the ESTEC technical center in the Netherlands, to broaden the scope of support that ESA can offer researchers and industry.