With the advent of quantum computing and newly-found abilities to solve incredibly complex problems, a new space race has emerged in which China, at least for now, seem to be leading.
Despite being proposed over 30 years ago, quantum computing is still relatively young. The technology can be utilized to solve complex problems that modern-day computers are unable to achieve at a useful speed.
In traditional computing, transistors in silicon chips can exist in one of two states represented in binary by a 1 or 0. In quantum computing, quantum bits or qubits can exist in more than two states and can be represented by a 1 and a 0 at the same time. These qubits are in what is known as superposition and are unobservable – once they are seen they then exist in a state. The technology can be used to greatly enhance computing power compared to today’s powerful supercomputers and will allow scientists to attempt to solve complex tasks without the type of experiments required to generate quantum phenomena.
Chinese scientists are using quantum computing to develop a sophisticated communications network while NASA are employing the technology to research better and safer methods of space travel, air traffic control and space missions involving robots.
The Chinese have been investing heavily in quantum technology, a move which has propelled them to the forefront of the sector. With this investment, they have also launched an ambitious space program which will see China launch a permanent manned space station by 2022 and send astronauts to the moon by 2036. With the ISS set to be retired before 2028, this move would see China become a major player in space as the only country with a space station. Investment in space is seen as a means of sparking innovation within the country, with BeiDou – a space navigation satellite capable of providing the geolocation information on Chinese weapon systems – already in space and other research in the pipeline including studying space weather and black holes.
Investigation of Space-Based Quantum Communications
In 2017, scientists in China officially began experimenting using quantum-enabled satellites to investigate space-based quantum communications. The two-year QUESS program could provide the infrastructure for future hack-proof communications networks. Based on quantum- encryption, if employed on a wide-scale, hacking, wire-tapping and code cracking in communications and the military would become a thing of the past; in order to decipher a message, a quantum-encrypted key would be needed, meaning theoretically, the message can’t be seen by a third party. Such satellites could be used against cyberattacks, cyberespionage and to prevent large-scale breaches of private and public information such as the 2013 Yahoo data breach.
A project between NASA, Google and Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is utilizing a 1,097-qubit D-Wave 2X quantum computer to tackle optimization problems in aeronautics, Earth and Space science and space exploration that traditional supercomputers can’t handle.
NASA scientists hope to use the technology in automated planning and scheduling of robotic missions; it will be necessary to plan far in advance because the distance between the Earth and other planets will make real-time communications with robots difficult. The use of quantum optimization will give scientists new tool to forecast possible events during a mission and determine the best course of action to allow the robots to complete their tasks.
NASA are employing quantum technology to solve optimization problems, such as reducing the danger of congested air space by improving routes of planes to ensure landing/taking off of planes in the terminals is as efficient as possible.
Potential Uses of Quantum Computing
Quantum computing has many potential uses, not least of all helping solve some incredibly complex problems in space and Earth sciences, space exploration and aeronautics. While China have been making huge strides in quantum computing in recent years, by no means do they hold a monopoly with Europe, Asia and North America also making great progress and it won’t be long before quantum computing is making huge difference in space.
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