TAMPA, Fla. — The European Space Agency has tasked an SES-led consortium to develop a satellite and begin operating it in 2024 to validate quantum key distribution (QKD) technology.

The group of more than 20 European companies secured a contract for the Eagle-1 satellite that includes three years of missions in low Earth orbit, where they aim to transmit keys using the quantum properties of photons to encrypt communications on the ground.

QKD is touted as the next big leap for delivering secure networks because any attempt to eavesdrop on the communication changes the state of the photons, destroying the keys.

While quantum keys can be distributed terrestrially, the distance they can reliably travel via fiber optic cables at sufficient speeds is limited.

Entering the quantum race

Luxembourg-based SES said Sept. 22 that Eagle-1 will be the first sovereign European end-to-end space-based QKD system.

In 2016, China launched a satellite called Micius that Chinese state media hailed as the world’s first quantum-enabled satellite.

The Chinese government said in July that a smaller satellite designed in the country, by developers including the University of Science and Technology of China, had started operations in LEO for real-time QKD experiments.

Singaporean startup SpeQtral is planning to deploy its first LEO QKD satellite in 2024, and Sept. 19 said it had signed a deal to use ground services from Europe’s Thales Alenia Space.

Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit is slated to launch the first LEO satellites for British quantum technology encryption startup Arqit in 2023.

ESA has a public-private partnership with Arqit and invested in its first satellite, which is being developed by a pan-European team including Austria, Belgium, Canada and the Czech Republic.

The Eagle-1 project is co-funded by ESA under its Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) program, including contributions from Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.

The European Commission is supporting Eagle-1 through Horizon Europe, a funding program for research and innovation.

SES said Eagle-1 will also support efforts to develop Europe’s proposed sovereign broadband satellite network.

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...