VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canadian satellite builder Com Dev is pushing ahead with a plan to put into orbit a communications system that — in theory, at least — can not be hacked.

The Cambridge, Ontario, company wants to demonstrate quantum cryptography technology first on an airborne platform by next March before installing the proposed system on a microsatellite, said Ian D’Souza, mission scientist for what Com Dev is calling its quantum encryption and science satellite.

The end result of the company’s strategy would be the creation of a microsatellite constellation outfitted with quantum cryptography.

Com Dev is allied with the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Ontario, for the project. It has received about 2 million Canadian dollars ($2 million) from the Canadian Space Agency to conduct a series of studies on the technology.

Conventional cryptography employs algorithms that ultimately are used to create encryption keys for communications systems.

Quantum cryptography relies on the use of photons to create those keys with the advantage being that any attempt to hack into that would be instantly detected (if an attempt is made to intercept or measure the photons, their polarity changes). Such cryptography is already in use by some government organizations and banks, with data being sent via a fiber optic cable on the ground. The main drawback, however, is that because of dissipation of the signal, such transmissions are limited to less than 200 kilometers.

Com Dev wants to outfit such technology onto microsatellites and use those spacecraft to transmit encryption keys between users. The company believes a space-based network would be able to allow the encryption data to be transmitted to ground stations anywhere in the world.

“The idea is that if you do this exchange with a satellite, the satellite can then move from one local network on the ground to another local network and allow keys to be exchanged, basically on a global scale,” D’Souza explained. “So the problem of being limited to 200 kilometers on the ground no longer exits.”

Such a system would have uses both for consumers and the military, D’Souza said. “It might even filter eventually to your cellphone, gathering new keys for your cellphone on a daily basis,” he explained. 

For military use there could be a small ground station terminal, the size of a telescope, to receive the data. “If you wanted secure communications in the middle of nowhere and you didn’t have your keys or you wanted to generate new keys or refresh your keys, you could do that,” D’Souza said.

Com Dev, however, is not the only one interested in such technology. Chinese quantum physicist Pan Jianwei announced in early March that his country is planning to work on a similar satellite. “We hope to establish a quantum communication network from Beijing to Vienna,” he told reporters at a March 7 conference in Beijing. That spacecraft would be ready by 2016, he added.

In April, a team of physicists from Munich University, in collaboration with the German Aerospace Center, DLR, for the first time successfully transmitted quantum information between a ground station and an aircraft in flight.

Com Dev and Quantum Computing will conduct similar tests by March. D’Souza said a Canadian ground station is now being built and a receiver is being designed to either be outfitted on an aircraft or a high-altitude balloon.

He noted that work also still has to be done to ensure the microsatellite is able to accurately point at the ground station.

If the ground-to-air mobile tests are successful, the next phase would be preparing the technology for space. A satellite bus is already designed and is based on the Canadian Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite (M3MSat), D’Souza said. That system, expected to be launched in September, is designed to carry a system to track ships at sea.

The 75-kilogram M3MSat is funded by Canada’s Defence Department, the Canadian Space Agency and Com Dev. The company is the prime contractor for the mission.

In the future a quantum key payload could be installed on such spacecraft to demonstrate the concept. “We would use that bus in a slightly upgraded format for that,” D’Souza said.

The Canadian Space Agency has not decided whether it will continue to fund the project to the point it is ready for launch but it has identified the spacecraft as one of its priority programs. Sources estimated that such a project would cost 25 million to 30 million Canadian dollars. D’Souza estimates that with full funding such a microsatellite could be launched within three years.

Sources say Com Dev is considering funding the project itself if the space agency decides not to continue providing financing. No cost estimates were available but the total cost for the M3MSat is 11 million Canadian dollars.

David Pugliese covers space policy and developments in the space industry in Canada. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.