The year is 2075. Picture vast fleets of spacecraft, equipped with hyper-sensitive quantum accelerometers, gyroscopes, and clocks, navigating the solar system with unmatched precision. Swarms of tiny cubesats, outfitted with miniaturized quantum sensors, working in unison to image exoplanets, map asteroids, and detect elusive dark matter. Space telescopes harnessing quantum optics to peer back to the very origins of our universe with clarity exponentially beyond present capability.
Consider impregnable quantum communication channels spanning vast cosmic distances, weaving a web of connectivity between planets and space settlements. Beams of entangled photons enabling teleportation of massive amounts of data across the void. Cryptographic keys distributed via satellite securing our space-based infrastructure from the threat of computational attacks.
Envision intelligent quantum computers onboard spacecraft crunching vast datasets into meaningful information before transmission to Earth. Powerful quantum simulators discovering new lightweight alloys, radiation shielding materials, and alternative propulsion concepts. Atomic-scale modeling of spacecraft components, subsystems, and architectures ensuring reliability and efficiency. The emergence of space infrastructure as a key element of the global quantum web.
A magnitude of potential is waiting to be unveiled if we can successfully bring together three of humanity’s most exciting fields – quantum, AI, and space.
While these scenarios are speculative, it will not be a surprise if it turns into reality. The history of space travel is punctuated with groundbreaking milestones, from the initial human-crewed spaceflight to the Moon landing. In recent years we have entered a new space age, where space technologies and satellites have become indispensable aspects of our daily lives. From GPS navigation systems to weather forecasting and Earth observation, space-based technologies have transformed the modern world.
At the same time, we have made incredible progress using physics to understand the fundamental properties of our world and start harnessing these properties for societal benefit. There have been two different quantum revolutions in recent years. The first quantum revolution, coinciding with the digital revolution, introduced us to revolutionary technologies such as electricity and semiconductors, which are grounded in the principles of quantum mechanics. The second quantum revolution, which is happening now, allows us to go one step further, manipulating the quantum properties of individual particles, unveiling extraordinary possibilities.
Over the last seven years in my personal career, I transitioned from studying space and gravity through the lens of a particle physicist to getting involved in building some of the world’s first-ever AI powered quantum payloads for cubesat missions for space, to working at the United Kingdom’s National Quantum Computing Centre (NQCC)leading tech-transfer into various industry sectors.
Whether it’s the launch of the James Webb Telescope, and the new insights it has provided into fundamental physics, the Micius satellite proving quantum enabled secure comms in space for the first time, the upcoming space gravitational wave observation mission LISA, or last year’s India’s moon lander Vikram’s success or its first solar mission Aditya L1 — space exploration and usage is ramping up and once hyper-specialized and separated fields are merging together. One of the sectors that could benefit from experimenting with and adopting from cutting edge quantum technologies is – space.
Quantum technologies leverage unique attributes of matter and energy at the microscopic scale, such as quantum entanglement, superposition, and tunneling. By encoding information into quantum states of photons or atoms, transmitting, and processing it using quantum principles, sensing phenomena through delicate quantum interactions, or performing computations inextricably linked to the quirky quantum world, scientists have opened up new possibilities.
This article explores the applications of quantum technologies for space, and the value that quantum computing can bring to the space industry.
As put aptly by Dr. Daniel Oi, Space Quantum Technologies expert from the University of Strathclyde and one of the principal investigators of the U.K.’s International Network in Space Quantum Technologies (INSQT), “The possibilities of quantum technologies in space are immense, from enhanced sensitivity and precision of quantum sensors and clocks, to global quantum secured communication and the quantum internet. This is reflected in a rapidly growing international community working to overcome the challenges of bringing quantum science and technology into orbit and represents an exciting endeavor uniting the efforts of theorists, experimentalists, and engineers.”
Applications of Quantum Technologies for Space
Quantum Communication and Security: One of the most promising applications of quantum technology in the space sector is quantum communication. Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) allows secure communication between two parties using the principles of quantum mechanics. This technology enables the transmission of encrypted data with the assurance that the information remains secure even if intercepted. It uses quantum entanglement, which creates a strong correlation between two particles regardless of the distance between them.
In the context of space exploration, QKD offers enhanced communication security for satellite networks, ground stations, and future crewed missions. China has already successfully demonstrated the use of quantum communication between satellites and ground stations through the Micius satellite, marking a crucial milestone in the development of secure space communication. Around the world and in the U.K., many new QKD missions are scheduled, most of them on cubesats which offer a higher risk-appetite and reduced mission costs.
Quantum Navigation and Positioning: Current navigation systems, such as GPS, rely on classical physics to function. However, these systems can be disrupted or affected by environmental factors, leading to inaccuracies in positioning. Quantum technologies offer a new approach to navigation through the development of quantum sensors, such as quantum atomic clocks and accelerometers.
These sensors utilize the quantum properties of atoms to measure time and acceleration with extreme precision. Next generation quantum atomic clocks which exploit higher (optical) frequencies and possibly entanglement for enhanced precision, can measure time with an accuracy of a few billionths of a second, which is essential for determining accurate positions in space. In space, quantum navigation can provide more precise and reliable positioning data for satellites, spacecraft, and planetary rovers. Quantum navigation systems can enable autonomous spacecraft to navigate more efficiently and safely without relying on external signals or beacons.
Quantum Sensing and Earth Observation: Quantum sensors use quantum phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement, to detect changes in physical properties like gravity, magnetic fields, and temperature with unparalleled sensitivity. These can be used for use-cases both in space and on earth.
Quantum sensors can significantly improve Earth observation capabilities, allowing satellites to detect even minute changes in environmental factors and provide valuable insights into Earth's not just geological structures, water resources, and natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions aiding climate recovery efforts massively but also other underground structures such as tunnels, and underground pipes, aiding repairs and improving safety. In space, quantum magnetometers can detect changes in the Earth's magnetic field, which can be useful in monitoring space weather phenomena that impact satellite operations and communications as well as solar weather phenomena which could impact earth energy grids. Ultra-sensitive quantum sensors measuring gravitational, magnetic and inertial forces through techniques like matter-wave interferometry can aid precise navigation and mapping. Quantum metrology using entangled photons could massively enhance the resolution of space telescopes to image exoplanets and peer deeper into the origins of the universe, including performing fundamental tests, such as the interaction between quantum theory and gravity, long-distance tests of QM, anisotropy of space-time, the constancy of the laws of physics, etc.
Moreover, quantum sensors can also enhance space exploration by enabling more accurate measurements of the physical properties of celestial bodies. These sensors can help scientists study the composition, atmosphere, and magnetic fields of distant planets and moons, paving the way for a better understanding of our universe.
The Value of Quantum Computing for Space
One of the most exciting technologies to have come out of the second quantum revolution is quantum computing. Unlike normal computers which use bits that can be either 0 or 1 to store and process information, quantum computers use quantum bits or qubits, which can be 0,1, or a superposition of both at the same time due to a quantum mechanical phenomenon called superposition. Qubits can also be entangled. The combination of quantum mechanical principles of superposition and entanglement is crucial in enabling a quantum computer’s power, allowing it to examine all potential combinations simultaneously, providing a range of answers that meet all constraints of the problem and perform computations for tasks that are intractable for even our largest supercomputers.
Quantum computing is still a very early-stage technology. However, it holds immense potential to solve previously intractable problems and bring a step change in accessible computational power. Here are some potential scenarios for how quantum computing and space technology could co-evolve over the next decade:
More efficient propulsion systems: Quantum computing could help develop more efficient propulsion systems for spacecraft by simulating the behavior of materials and components at the atomic level, enabling engineers to identify new materials and designs that are more efficient and durable than those currently available.
Orbital Debris Detection and Tracking: Quantum navigation technology can help in the detection and tracking of space debris, a growing concern for satellite operators and space agencies. Improved space situational awareness from quantum sensors data and computing techniques could aid tracking orbital debris, forecasting collision risks and developing mitigation strategies.
Improved Communications Technologies and Satellite Data Traffic Network Optimization: Optimization is one of the domains that quantum computers are predicted to have an advantage over classical computers. With our world’s ever increasing digital footprint, network traffic management and optimization of the design of optical networks and systems, ensuring that they are reliable and resilient, could be one of the most valuable use-cases for a quantum computer. Optical comms systems could be used to transmit large amounts of data from space probes back to Earth, on which scientists can employ quantum computing to study the universe in greater detail than ever before.
New materials and manufacturing techniques: Quantum computing and space technology could also co-evolve in the development of new materials and manufacturing techniques that enable the production of more efficient and durable spacecrafts – lighter, stronger, and more heat resistant.
Helping Climate Action and Net Zero Goals: Quantum computing could be used in conjunction with Earth observation data sent down by quantum sensors to build climate adaptation digital twin models in hybrid super computing and quantum computing modules and perform uncertainty quantification for remotely sensed datasets. Quantum algorithms for Earth observation image processing combined with new materials and manufacturing techniques could help accelerate climate actions around the world.
New discoveries and insights: Quantum sensors and detectors could be used to analyze the composition of planets, asteroids, and other celestial bodies in greater detail. Quantum computing could also be used to simulate the behavior of these bodies and complex systems in space by simulating digital twins and analyzing large amounts of data sent down by those sensors, providing scientists with a better understanding of their characteristics and behaviors. This would help scientists design more effective space missions and could also lead to new discoveries about the origins and behavior of the universe, as well as new insights into the potential for life beyond Earth.
Currently, no quantum computer has yet managed to solve any problems a classical solution cannot, however, as evidenced more and more by paper’s such as IBM’s recent Quantum Utility paper, we are inching closer and closer to the day that we see “Quantum Advantage” — when quantum computers with around a few thousand stable qubits are expected to be available commercially demonstrating clear order of magnitude advantage in comparison to current classical computing time and energy requirements. Commercial scale Universal Fault Tolerant Quantum Computers are predicted to be with us in the next 10 to 20 years and that’s when we expect to see the actual transformative power of quantum computing.
However, since quantum technologies are fundamentally different technologies we are currently used to, large-scale adoption of quantum technologies will need advance planning and preparation for us to be “quantum ready” – or ready to take advantage of the opportunities presented by quantum computing. The U.K. has the ambition to be the world’s first-ever quantum ready economy and has recently also published its National Quantum Strategy.
Already today, small scale, non-error-corrected quantum computers composed of several tens/hundreds of qubits have come online and are accessible to the public through the cloud. While these wouldn’t give us any “quantum advantage”, experimenting with these systems starting now will improve our understanding of the scaling challenges of quantum computing and can help businesses understand the benefits of using quantum computing within their processes as opposed to current classical solutions. Early experimentation also helps us understand cases where quantum computing might not provide any advantage, thus saving a lot of subsequent time and effort! Organizations are finding different ways to pilot the technology, trying to uncover and test early use cases which can have tangible business benefits.
Early examples are already emerging in various fields such as quantum chemistry, fluid dynamics, machine learning, small molecule simulation and optimization. Additionally, quantum simulators are making strides in fields varying from molecular energetics to many-body physics. In the U.K., the National Quantum Technologies Programme has made significant investment into programs bringing researchers in academia, industry and end-users together working across a portfolio of sectors, technologies and use-cases to foster quantum readiness. In the space sector, networks such as the INSQT are playing a key role in bringing together academics across the globe and accelerating innovation by enabling knowledge transfer across borders.
Our world is currently faced with unprecedented challenges that require us to think radically and innovate faster to transition to digital and green economies. As we stand at the precipice of a new space age, the strange yet powerful properties of quantum physics may hold the key to overcoming many limitations holding us back from venturing further out into the final frontier. There is no doubt that quantum computing will prove to be a transformative technology, providing us with the tools we might need to navigate these VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous — times.
Yet we must remain cognizant that with the power of quantum science comes obligation. As we integrate these capabilities into space systems, we must do so responsibly and ethically. We must adopt principles of responsible innovation as we integrate these exponentially powerful capabilities into space infrastructure. Ethical guidelines anchored in ideals of knowledge-sharing, transparency and vision-driven research focused on collective long-term gain over parochial short-term interests will ensure quantum-enabled space science serves all humanity and our fragile biosphere. Unlike the cold equations of physics, we must be guided by a collective and inter-sectional moral compass. Not brute efficiency, but collective uplifting. Not zero-sum control, but generous collaboration. Not national prestige, but shared knowledge.
The synergy between quantum science and space technology promises to reshape the contours of the possible. By imbuing space exploration with the weird yet wonderful qualities of quantum physics, we prepare to traverse an uncharted new cosmos teaming with possibility and peril. Our generation stands at the cusp of a thrilling new space odyssey enriched by the quantum realm. We must remain ever mindful that space belongs to all of us. If we remain bold in imagination yet cautious in application, humanity's quantum voyage may illuminate mysteries of the universe we cannot yet conceive. VS
Dr. Sonali Mohapatra is a Quantum Innovation Lead at the National Quantum Computing Centre in the U.K. and a freelance science writer and speaker. She has previously led and been part of world first technical projects such as two of the world’s first ever AI powered Quantum Key Distribution systems for cubesats, the LIGO gravitational wave prototype interferometer, and using biophotonics for cancer research.
This article is written by Mohapatra (With special acknowledgements to Dr Daniel Oi – Principal Investigator INSQT) as a freelance contributor for Via Satellite building upon her paper, “Advances in Space Quantum Communications” and her own technical knowledge and experience, and does not represent the views of any organization mentioned in any shape or form.