Science magazine reports on the latest Chinese space breakthrough – one that could lead to instant communication with distant spaceships, or hack-proof communications here on Earth. They’ve achieved instantaneous “spooky action” at a record-breaking, 1,200-kilometer distance:
Entanglement involves putting objects in the peculiar limbo of quantum superposition, in which an object’s quantum properties occupy multiple states at once: like Schrödinger’s cat, dead and alive at the same time. Then those quantum states are shared among multiple objects. Physicists have entangled particles such as electrons and photons, as well as larger objects such as superconducting electric circuits.
Theoretically, even if entangled objects are separated, their precarious quantum states should remain linked until one of them is measured or disturbed. That measurement instantly determines the state of the other object, no matter how far away. The idea is so counterintuitive that Albert Einstein mocked it as “spooky action at a distance.”
Beyond the fundamental result, such experiments also point to the possibility of hack-proof communications. Long strings of entangled photons, shared between distant locations, can be “quantum keys” that secure communications. Anyone trying to eavesdrop on a quantum-encrypted message would disrupt the shared key, alerting everyone to a compromised channel.
Jian-Wei Pan, a physicist at the University of Science and Technology of China in Shanghai, got the chance to test the idea when the Micius satellite, named after an ancient Chinese philosopher, was launched in August 2016….
In their first experiment, the team sent a laser beam into a light-altering crystal on the satellite. The crystal emitted pairs of photons entangled so that their polarization states would be opposite when one was measured. The pairs were split, with photons sent to separate receiving stations in Delingha and Lijiang, 1200 kilometers apart. Both stations are in the mountains of Tibet, reducing the amount of air the fragile photons had to traverse. This week in Science, the team reports simultaneously measuring more than 1000 photon pairs. They found the photons had opposite polarizations far more often than would be expected by chance, thus confirming spooky action over a record distance (though the 2015 test over a shorter distance was more stringent).
The team had to overcome many hurdles, including keeping the beams of photons focused on the ground stations as the satellite hurtled through space at nearly 8 kilometers per second.