Institute for Quantum Computing Lands $1.5 Million for Data Encryption Satellite

In perhaps the most implausible headline possible, the Government of Canada is helping fund a quantum computer encryption satellite that will be launched into orbit to protect millions of people’s data.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has awarded $1.5 million to the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) to lead the science behind a mission called the Quantum Encryption and Satellite Science (QEYSSat).

This initiative will help protect Canada’s communications and data transfers over the next generation of computing, as it is estimated that within 10 to 20 years the encryption codes used by computers today will be easily decoded by high-performing quantum computers.

“When we have a quantum computer with enough qubits, it will be able to crack every problem,” says Ralph Girard, science and application lead for QEYSSat. “When they do that, it means all the traffic on the internet will be insecure. People need to devise, right now, new ways to encrypt the data so that we can continue the online exchange of information.”

The QEYSSat mission will look to bring Canada one step closer to a fully operational quantum communications service, building a durable cyber security network for the country in an age of quantum computing where regular encryption will be rendered obsolete and easily crackable. When Girard refers to a qubit, he is referring to the quantum computing version of a bit, or binary digit.

Working with the IQC was a natural choice for Girard and the QEYSSat team as well, considering they have a lot of history when it comes to encryption and quantum computing.

“We had a competition years ago to study new quantum applications in space, and IQC won the very first contract and that’s where they devised the concept we now call QEYSSat,” explains Girard. “IQC basically reached a point where they developed so much knowledge and intellectual property for that mission that it would make no sense to run any competition to select another science team.”

“It’s really their brainchild,” he adds.

This kind of technology can not just sit on the ground, as current quantum key distribution relies on ground fibre optic cables and can really only run about 200 kilometres in distance. There is exponential decay when transferring via fibre. For normal optical communications, this isn’t really an issue, as repeaters can be added to boost the signal. But quantum communication cannot do this, as communication needs to be point to point with no repeater. In space, a satellite can sit at 500 or 1000 kilometres away and focus their signal at a target on the ground.

“The development of revolutionary technologies like quantum encryption will provide Canadians with security, safety, reliable government services and protection of their privacy,” says Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development. “This investment enables the University of Waterloo to advance Canada’s technological and scientific advantage in quantum technologies. It creates new opportunities to develop a highly qualified workforce in Canada and opens new markets and commercial opportunities around the world.”

This new financing will further advance encryption methods to create unbreakable security codes. The next step after this will be for the CSA to issue a request for proposal to build the actual satellite and launch it, which will be on a timeline “closer to five years away than 10,” according to Girard.