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Life on Earth is already being transformed by quantum technologies. However, they have the ability to alter how humans operate in space. These changes are expected to come sooner rather than later. The United States, China, and Europe are all investing extensively in this sector.

How would quantum technologies based in space make a difference?

Rainer Kaltenbaek of the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Austria, as well as colleagues from around Europe, have sketched out the future in this field and outlined the advancements that space-based quantum technologies would enable.

While quantum computing and quantum communication get the most attention. Kaltenbaek and colleagues argue that other quantum technologies will have just as significant an impact. Consider atom interferometry using quantum sensors.

These gadgets can measure any change in motion of a satellite in orbit. As it is buffeted by minor changes in the Earth’s gravitational field with unparalleled accuracy. Factors such as the migration of colder, greater density water flow in the deep ocean, flooding, the movement of continents, and ice flow all contribute to these shifts.

Climate Sensing

As a result, quantum sensors like this will pave the way for a new era of Earth observation. These investigations will disclose before unseen consequences of climate change on deep ocean currents. As well as how stresses are developing in continents as they migrate, and will aid our understanding of Earth’s geology. “Quantum sensors in space will allow for better monitoring of Earth’s resources. Improved forecasts of Earthquakes and harmful global warming consequences like floods and droughts.” Kaltenbaek and colleagues claim that.

Better quantum clocks are also expected to have an impact. The crucial technology here is the capacity to send this information to another site with high precision, rather than the ability to keep time. This capability will lead to networks of space-based clocks that are more perfectly synchronized than anything currently accessible.

Global navigation satellite systems, such as GPS, are examples of time-keeping networks that are already considered foundational. Improved timekeeping will also allow for more precise geolocation services.

But this is only the start. One key application will be the creation of visible light synthetic aperture telescopes.

The goal is to time the arrival of light waves at two different sites and then build an image of their source, such as a distant star. This technique’s resolution is comparable to that of a traditional telescope with an aperture equal to the distance between these spots, which can be thousands of kilometers apart — hence the phrase synthetic aperture.

Longer wavelength radiation, such as radio waves, has long allowed for this. In fact, employing this approach for radio waves, the first images of a supermassive black hole were made in 2019.

The wavelength of visible light, on the other hand, is measured in nanometers rather than meters. To record their arrival, much more precise timing measurements are required, which the next generation of space-based quantum time-keeping devices should be able to provide.

Exoplanet Atmospherics

These synthetic aperture telescopes will be far more sensitive than anything currently available, allowing astronomers to investigate planets orbiting other stars in unprecedented detail. Gravitational-wave observatories in space should benefit as well, as they will be able to detect fainter signals from colliding neutrons stars and their ilk.

Secure communications will be the most visible benefit of space-based quantum technology in the immediate term. One well-known use of quantum theory is the ability to transfer information with absolute security.

Micius, the world’s first quantum communications satellite, was launched by China in 2016. Secure video calls from one continent to another have previously been demonstrated. Europe and the United States are lagging behind in this area, but they should catch up by connecting land-based quantum communication networks to space-based quantum communication networks and eventually enabling a worldwide quantum internet.

Of course, all of this will require extensive preparation, collaboration, and funding. Europe has committed major amounts to future quantum technologies, China is a leader in space-based quantum technology, while the United States is lacking in some areas.

If it is to reclaim leadership in these areas, this must alter.

By dmaico

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