Thales Alenia Space leading another ESA push to develop quantum comms

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TAMPA, Fla. — Thales Alenia Space has signed a contract to develop quantum technologies in another push by the European Space Agency (ESA) to use the behavior of subatomic particles to make communications more secure. 

The European satellite maker said Jan. 23 it is leading a consortium called TeQuantS, which aims to develop technologies needed to demonstrate quantum communication links from space in three years.

By using the entanglement properties of photons, these links are intended to be more secure than conventional networks because any attempt to intercept them would change their state.

Terrestrial quantum communication networks using fiber optic cables are limited to about 150 kilometers, according to Thales, and satellites are better suited for using these capabilities over longer distances.

According to Chinese state media, the Micius satellite China launched in 2016 was the first quantum-enabled spacecraft.

NASA and startups including Singapore’s SpeQtral are also exploring space-based quantum capabilities to protect communications from increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks, such as by quantum computers.

The overall contract ESA awarded TeQuantS is worth around 10 million euros ($11 million), said Mathias Vanden Bossche, director of research, technology and product policy at Thales Alenia Space.

That covers a first phase lasting 12 months, Bossche told SpaceNews via email, to start technology qualifications that could lead to a potential demonstration in 2026.

It is part of ESA’s multi-pronged approach to advance quantum communications technology, notably under a framework called EuroQCI (European Quantum Communication Infrastructure.)

Two groups have secured contracts under the EuroQCI framework to study quantum communication architectures: One led by Airbus and another by German telco Deutsche Telekom.

EuroQCI covers many projects ranging from ground to space segments. The main objective is to define the overall architecture of quantum-based networks and set up terrestrial test beds.

TeQuantS is focusing on technology developments for the space segment, Bossche said, and targets a wider scope than EuroQCI.

And unlike an ESA project led by satellite operator SES aiming to develop a satellite to test the distribution of quantum encryption keys for cryptography, he said TeQuantS will also study ways to connect quantum computers and quantum sensors in a multipurpose network.

While quantum key distribution (QKD) is important for security, he said generic networks will need to be able to support the many applications and greater performance promised by quantum information networking

“These generic networks are the real at-stake and challenge of quantum communications,” Bossche added.

“Overall, the Thales Alenia Space project is the first project that addresses quantum information networks in space.”

The TeQuantS consortium comprises Airbus, seven smaller firms and startups, and two research laboratories.