QUESS (Quantum Experiments at Space Scale) / Micius
QUESS is a joint Chinese-Austrian satellite mission operated by CAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences), in cooperation with the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences (AAS). QUESS is a proof-of-concept mission designed to facilitate quantum optics experiments over long distances to allow the development of quantum encryption and quantum teleportation technology.
The Quantum Science Satellite (QSS), also known as the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS), was nicknamed “Micius” after a fifth century B.C. Chinese scientist named Mozi (Micius in Latin). He discovered that light travels in straight lines and was likely the first person to record an image with a pinhole.
The scientific objectives of the QUESS mission are:
• Implementation of long-distance quantum communication network based on high-speed QKD (Quantum Key Distribution) between the satellite and the ground station, to achieve major breakthroughs in the realization of spaceborne practical quantum communication.
• Quantum entanglement distribution and quantum teleportation on a space scale, fundamental tests of the laws of quantum mechanics on a global scale.
Quantum entanglement is a physical phenomenon in which pairs or groups of particles interact in ways such that the quantum state can only be described for the system as a whole and not for the individual particles part of that system. The measurement of a property of a particle can be seen as acting on that particle and will change its original quantum property which – in case of entangled particles – will cause the system’s quantum state to change. It appears that one particle of an entangled pair “knows” the measurement conducted on the other particle in an exchange of information that can cover any distance.
Background: The Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI), Vienna, Austria, is conducting a collaboration project with the University of Science and Technology of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS). Within this project, CAS will launch a dedicated quantum science satellite to facilitate quantum optics experiments from space to ground. IQOQI will provide optical ground stations in Europe for receiving the quantum signal sent from the Chinese satellite. The scientific goal within this cooperation is to intercontinentally generate an unconditional secure quantum cryptographic key between two earth based stations in Asia and Europe, respectively. The Chinese mission “XD-2: Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS)” is managed directly under a CAS contract. 1)
The partnership contract between CAS and the Austrian Academy of Sciences was signed in 2011. 2)
The mission, first proposed by Jianwei Pan (PI) of CAS in 2003, is an early experiment in the extremely demanding nascent field of quantum communication.
Quantum communications are secure because any tinkering with them is detectable. Two parties can communicate secretly — by sharing an encryption key encoded in the polarization of a string of photons, say — safe in the knowledge that any eavesdropping would leave its mark.
So far, scientists have managed to demonstrate quantum communication up to about 300 km. Photons travelling through optical fibers and the air get scattered or absorbed, and amplifying a signal while preserving a photon’s fragile quantum state is extremely difficult. The Chinese researchers hope that transmitting photons through space, where they travel more smoothly, will allow them to communicate over greater distances.
At the heart of their satellite is a crystal that produces pairs of entangled photons, whose properties remain entwined however far apart they are separated. The craft’s first task will be to fire the partners in these pairs to ground -stations in Beijing and Vienna, and use them to generate a secret key.
During the two-year mission, the team also plans to perform a statistical measurement known as a Bell test to prove that entanglement can exist between particles separated by a distance of 1,200 km. Although quantum theory predicts that entanglement persists at any distance, a Bell test would prove it.
The team will also attempt to ‘teleport’ quantum states, using an entangled pair of photons alongside information transmitted by more conventional means to reconstruct the quantum state of a photon in a new location (Ref. 4).
Figure 1: Artist's illustration of the QUESS teleportation demonstration between Beijing and Vienna (image credit: University of Vienna) 3)
Built by NSSC (National Space Science Center) of CAS, the Micius satellite has a mass of ~640 kg. QUESS is based on a minisatellite bus that can host payloads of around 200 kg, providing a stable platform with precise pointing capability for ground stations to lock onto the optical carriers from the satellite and vice versa. It is fitted with two deployable solar arrays and is designed to be operational for up to two years. The spacecraft is equipped with a quantum key communicator, a quantum entanglement emitter, a quantum entanglement source, a quantum experiment controller and processor, and a high-speed coherent laser communicator.
The communications data from the QUESS satellite is received by three ground receiving stations located at Miyun (Beijing), Sanya (Hainan), and Kashgar (Xinjiang), and processed by the NSSC (National Space Science Center) of CAS (China Academy of Sciences) in Beijing.
Figure 2: Photo of the QUESS satellite (image credit: Cai Yang/Xinhua, Nature) 4)
Orbit: Sun-synchronous orbit, altitude of about 600 km, inclination = 97.37°.
The secondary payloads on this flight were:
• Lixing-1, a microsatellite (110 kg) of CAS, developed by NSSC (National Space Science Center). Lixing-1 will operate at a very low orbital altitude of between 100-150 km to study this region of extremely thin atmosphere.
• 3Cat-2, a 6U CubeSat developed by the NanoSat Lab of UPC (Polytechnic University of Catalonia), Spain with a mass of 7.1 kg.
Figure 3: Illustration of the deployed QUESS spacecraft (image credit: CAS)
• January 19, 2017: The QUESS satellite is officially operational after four months of in-orbit testing, according to CAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences) of January 18. The testing of the satellite, payloads and space-ground links have been completed, all systems are operating nominally. The research team has begun to carry out experiments and preliminary data has been obtained, said Jinwei Pan, chief scientist of the project. QUESS will explore "hack-proof" quantum communications by transmitting unhackable keys from space, and provide insight into the strangest phenomenon in quantum physics — quantum entanglement. 8)
Figure 4: On Jan. 18, 2017, Jianwei Pan, chief scientist of the QUESS (Quantum Experiments at Space Scale) project of CAS (Chinese Academy of Sciences), addresses a ceremony in Beijing to declare the "Micius"satellite as operational (image credit: Xinhua, Liwang Jin)
Figure 5: This photo, taken on December 10, 2016, shows a satellite-to-earth link established between the satellite "Micius" and the quantum teleportation experiment platform in Ali, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region (image credit: Xinhua, Liwang Jin)
• According to Xinhua, the QUESS satellite transmitted data to the China RSGS (Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station) in Miyun on the outskirts of Beijing on August 17, 2016. — Two more Chinese ground stations - at Kashgar in the northwest and Sanya in the south - will be involved, as well as a site in Austria. 9)
QUESS first faces a number of technical challenges in orbit, especially to make sure that the receiving telescopes on the ground can precisely track the satellite, which will be travelling at 8 km/s. "It's very challenging to create a perfect quantum channel between the satellite and the ground station," says Jianwei Panfrom the University of the Science and Technology of China, who is QUESS's chief scientist. "We have developed a high-frequency and high-accuracy acquiring, pointing and tracking technique to do that" (Ref. 6).
Figure 6: Artist's rendition of quantum experiments at space scale in China (image credit: NSSC)
Initial entanglement tests will performed by the Chinese team, according to Jianwei Pan from the University of the Science and Technology of China, who is QUESS's chief scientist. Once these targets have been met, the Chinese team will then collaborate with Anton Zeilinger and colleagues at the University of Vienna to create an "intercontinental" QKD channel between Beijing and Vienna.
Experiment complement: (QKC, QET, QEPS, QCP)
The overall objective is to test the phenomena of quantum entanglement. The satellite carries four devices, including a quantum key distributor, a quantum entanglement transmitter, a quantum entanglement generator, and a quantum test control processor. It has two separate antennas to simultaneously establish quantum communications with two ground stations on Earth.
Figure 7: The QSS payload section (image credit: Xinhua)
One of the major objectives of the mission is to set a QKD (Quantum Key Distribution) from satellite to ground, setting an ultra-long-range quantum channel between ground and satellite with the assistance of high-precision acquisition, tracking and pointing system, implement a quantum key distribution between the satellite and the ground stations, and carry out unconditional secure quantum communication experiments.
The main instrument on board QUESS is a "Sagnac effect" interferometer. This is a device which generates pairs of entangled photons which can then be transmitted to the ground. This will allow QUESS to perform QKD — the transmission of a secure cryptographic key that can be used to encrypt and decrypt messages — to two ground stations. QKD theoretically offers truly secure communication. In QKD, two parties who want to communicate share a random secret key transmitted using pairs of entangled photons sent with random polarization, with each party receiving one half of the pair. This secret key can then be used as a one-time pad, allowing the two parties to communicate securely through normal channels. Any attempt to eavesdrop on the key will disturb the entangled state in a detectable way. 10)
QKC (Quantum Key Communicator)
QET (Quantum Entangled Transmitter)
QEPS (Quantum Entangled Photon Source)
QCP (Quantum Control Processor)
1) ”Space quantum communication – cooperation with China,” IQOQI, URL:
2) ”Vienna Quantum Space Test Link: Milestone in Quantum Communication,” University of Vienna, May 8, 2011, URL: http://medienportal.univie.ac.at/presse
Elizabeth Gibney, ”Chinese satellite is one giant step for the
quantum internet,” Nature, Aug. 16, 2016 (updated), URL: http://www.nature.com/news
Tomasz Nowakowski, ”China launches world's first quantum
communications satellite into space,” Spaceflight Insider, Aug.
16, 2016, URL: http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/space-flight-news
6) Ling Xin, ”China launches world's first quantum science satellite,” Physics World, August 16, 2016, URL: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2016/aug/16
8) ”China's quantum communication satellite delivered for use,” Xinhua, Jan. 18, 2017, URL: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-01/18/c_135994394.htm
9) Chunyang Ding, ”China Launches World’s First Quantum Telecommunication Satellite,” Sept. 11, 2016, URL: http://www.yalescientific.org/2016/09
10) Jeffrey Lin, P.W. Singer, John Costello, ”China's Quantum Satellite Could Change Cryptography Forever — QUESS could hold the key to uncrackable communications,” Popular Science, March 3, 2016, URL: http://www.popsci.com/chinas-quantum-satellite-could-change-cryptography-forever
11) ”China's Pioneering Quantum Satellite Launch Slips to August,” CAS, June 23, 2016, URL: http://english.cas.cn/newsroom/news/201606/t20160623_164768.shtml
Coldewey, ”China launches the first quantum communications
satellite – and what is that, exactly?,” Aug. 16, 2016,
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).