One small step for satellites, one quantum leap for encryption

by: that public servant | | Share

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Quantum physics. Photons. Binary code. With my literary background, these science-y words would typically go over my head. But these concepts are important pieces of the fascinating work of Éric Gloutnay and his team at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)—work that is critical to one of the biggest leaps in the coming years: quantum computing. Though I felt a bit out of my league going into my conversation with Éric, he explained his work in a way that somehow made this all seem clear - which I will now attempt to do in this article. Wish me luck...

Before we get into the work that Éric does, let’s get a couple scientific terms out of the way early:

Quantum Physics:
In the most basic terms, it explains how everything works. It describes the nature of the particles that make up matter and the forces they interact with.
Photon:
The smallest discrete amount, or quantum, of electromagnetic radiation. It travels through space at the speed of light and has no charge or mass.

And that’s just the warm up, folks!

Thanking his lucky stars

“To be honest, I never dreamt of having the opportunity to work at the Canadian Space Agency. It was a dream for me and just talking about it 25 years later still gives me goosebumps. I pinch myself sometimes at how fortunate I am,”

Speaking with Éric, you wouldn’t necessarily know that he’s been at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) for as long as he has. That’s because 25 years later, he has the same enthusiasm and energy he had as a physics student just starting out at the Agency in 1996. His first job? Analyzing the effects of space radiation on astronauts: “To be honest, I never dreamt of having the opportunity to work at the Canadian Space Agency. It was a dream for me and just talking about it 25 years later still gives me goosebumps. I pinch myself sometimes at how fortunate I am,” he gushes.

The quantum leap

Over the course of his career at CSA, Éric has worked on many amazing projects. Just to give you an example of how neat his job really is: he’s worked with astronauts and even got a chance to witness a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral. Not to be punny, but his career really launched from there. Currently, he is serving as the systems engineer on the Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite mission—or QEYSSat, in an exciting partnership with the National Research Council. The mission: to boldly go where no one has gone before. Well, sort of—minus the human passengers.

First, some important context before we get into the details of the QEYSSat mission. Currently, we use binary encryption for communication (think of the green ones and zeros from the Matrix films—minus the action scenes and cool sunglasses). This type of encryption is based on mathematical models and while it’s very secure at the moment, it may not be up to snuff once quantum computers arrive on the scene. As Éric explains, with today’s technology, it can take up to eight to ten months to decrypt certain kinds of code. But quantum computers have the potential to change the game: “These computers are very different from what we have right now. They’re based on what we call ‘qubits’, which are units of quantum information. A single qubit can hold a tremendous amount of data and is so quick that it could theoretically decode our current encryption methods in minutes, rather than months.” In other words, current cyber security measures could be rendered obsolete with the arrival of quantum computers. Insert ominous organ music.

Fighting fire with fire

“We’re using quantum physics to create a new encryption technology to address the security concerns of quantum computing.”

New technologies always come with inherent risks, but quantum computing is shaping up to have a massive impact on data security. Basically, a new type of encryption will be required, and this is where the work of Éric and his team comes in. The solution? “Fight fire, with fire”, he explains. “We’re using quantum physics to create a new encryption technology to address the security concerns of quantum computing.” In a physics nutshell, Éric and his team are using quantum technology to shoot a stream of photons through filters which randomly send the photon spinning in one direction (“polarized photon”).  This polarization state is what defines the information bit to be a 0 or 1.  A random sequence of these 0s and 1s will make up the secret key. These photons then travel to an intended receiver which can measure the photons and its polarization state using its own set of filters

Still with me? The really cool thing about this process is that if an eavesdropper (AKA a hacker) tries to intercept the information that’s being sent with the photons, both the sender and receiver would immediately know. How would they know, you ask? Physics! The beauty of using photons to send data is that they can move and change course quickly. So, if a hacker were trying to intercept the data, they would automatically change the polarization state of the photon, and both the sender and the receiver would know it’s not the same as they sent or measured. They could then discard it and try sending another one until both sides were sure there was no funny business from a hacker. This is much different from today’s encryption technology where encrypted keys are sent via RF (air) or current (cables) signals and can be intercepted by a hacker without anyone knowing right away.

According to Éric, this method is known as a ‘Quantum Encryption Key’ and explains that the technology is still in its early stages: “It’s currently mostly used in universities and labs, and there are still limitations. We’re using optical fibres to send those photons, but after a few hundred kilometres, the photons become attenuated and can no longer be read. So, it’s limited by distance – at least on Earth.” The workaround? Sending those photons up to space to a satellite which plays the role of the receiver to create the key. This is what Éric and his team have been busy working on. It’s ground-breaking and unprecedented work, as Canada is only the second country in the world to test this method, right behind China.

Beaming their way up

“Being able to shoot millions of photons to a satellite in outer space and getting them to move correctly while being in line of sight, is definitely challenging. We only have about a ten minute window at a time.”

The sheer ambition of the mission comes with its share of challenges. For instance, aiming photons at a satellite that’s moving at thousands of kilometres an hour around the Earth is no easy task. “Being able to shoot millions of photons to a satellite in outer space and getting them to move correctly while being in line of sight, is definitely challenging. We only have about a ten minute window at a time,” explains Éric. This reminds me of my struggles with the hardest level of Duck Hunt on Nintendo, times a billion. The other challenge is the novelty of the project itself, resulting in certain unknowns.

But Éric and his team are confident in the mission. Many other countries are keen to try the same thing and Éric sees that as a sign of confidence and an important opportunity for collaboration: “Certain countries—like the United Kingdom and the United States—are keen to work with us and one of the key measures of success would be if we could test the system outside of our borders.” With key partners, CSA hopes to achieve their goal of using quantum physics to secure the information of tomorrow.

As we wrapped an absolutely fascinating conversation, my head began to hurt from all the scientific lingo. So, I asked Éric what he enjoys most about this project: “In my previous positions, I was working more as a specialist. But here, I’m overseeing a lot more and am involved in the decision-making. The experience I got from working on many other missions has really set me up for this one. I’m learning so much because I get to see the bigger picture of a mission and it’s so exciting to be part of something that could have a tremendous impact on the future of technology.”

Twenty five years later, it’s no wonder Éric still has the same passion and enthusiasm for his job. He’s worked on projects that have literally been out of this world. And with this mission poised to change the way data is encrypted, it may just be his biggest leap yet.


 
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