Visual credit: Espace Thales Alenia Space
Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture owned by the French group Thales (67%) and the Italian Leonardo (33%), has signed a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) to lead the TeQuantS project aimed at developing technologies quantum communication between space and Earth.
The European consortium aims to build a constellation of satellites and optical ground stations by the end of 2026 in order to demonstrate the performance of long-range quantum satellite links. He recalls, in a press release, that “satellites are now considered the best choice for long-range quantum communications, because ground-based fiber optic links directly transmitting quantum information are limited to a range of approximately 150 kilometers.”
Unstable, qubits – elementary units carrying quantum information – can easily get lost or dispersed in a fiber optic cable. The expansion and contraction of the fiber under the effect of small variations in ambient conditions, such as temperature fluctuations, disturb these “fragile” qubits, explains a research article from the European Commission. They are therefore subject to error if they travel long distances. The record seems to have been set by Toshiba teams who managed to send quantum information over optical fibers 600 km long.
The future of cyber defense
TeQuantS aims to explore the space field, which removes this barrier, to develop quantum technologies for cybersecurity applications and future quantum information networks. Objective of this “quantum internet”: to allow future computers and quantum sensors to communicate with each other.
This project, which must guarantee the integrity of communications, has a strong stake in European sovereignty. The great maneuvers in space have already begun between great powers. Since 2016, China has been testing quantum satellite communication. Quantum technology is indeed the future of cyber defense. It is a question of proposing inviolable communication systems, as alternatives to terrestrial links.
“The main challenge in cybersecurity is to generate secure cryptographic keys using the quantum properties of light and distribute them to users anywhere in the world,” recalls Thales Alenia Space. For the record, quantum key distribution – QKD or quantum key distribution – uses the properties of quantum physics to distribute an encryption key between two distant interlocutors, known only to them.
Anticipating the post-quantum era
What if cybercriminals or ill-intentioned states also had quantum power? This is the next stage, called post-quantum. Quantum computers can already theoretically “break” the encryption keys used on a daily basis, starting with the RSA algorithm on which many protocols such as SSL/TLS are based.
Quantum communications are currently the subject of major research and development programs. We can cite the EuroQCI project, which aims to build a secure quantum communication infrastructure that will cover the entire European Union, including its overseas territories. It brings together manufacturers such as Deutsche Telekom, Thales Alenia Space and Telefónica.
Initiated by the European Commission, the OpenQKD (Open Quantum Key Distribution) project consists of popularizing quantum encryption. It brings together research centres, operators and equipment manufacturers from 13 Member States. In France, France, Orange, Thales, the CNRS or the Institut Mines Telecom are involved.
Led by Thales Alenia Space, the TeQuantS project will rely on the expertise of a consortium with a strong French flavor. It is made up of Airbus Defense and Space, seven SMEs and startups – Alpao, Aurea Technology, Bertin Technologies, Miratlas, OGS Technologies, QTlabs, Sigmaworks – and two research laboratories – LIP6 of Sorbonne University and the Institute of Physics of Nice (INPHYNI) of the Côte d’Azur University associated with the CNRS.