The Key To Protecting Satellite Communications Might Lie Inside A Tiny Photon

Experts are harnessing the peculiar features of quantum physics to establish secure communications with orbiting spacecraft.

A Self-Destructing Code

Traditional encryption involves sending a scrambled message and a key for deciphering it as a binary stream of 1s and 0s (called classical bits) between authorized parties. Sophisticated hackers can copy encrypted messages, then later exploit their vulnerabilities to access the encrypted data — all potentially unbeknownst to the sender and receiver. Attackers can leverage future increases in processing speed to capture data today that they can crack in the future.

Hands-On Perspective

In the United States, a number of financial services firms already use QKD to transmit data through fiber-optic cables. However, these signals can only travel so far through fiber before degrading, limiting their range. They are also currently rely on ground fibers, making the current approach untenable for space systems.

Dr. Uttam Paudel is among the team of scientists and engineers at Aerospace leading the effort to better understand and harness the potential of quantum communication technologies.

A Matter of Trust

Concurrently, Aerospace’s CSPS is examining the policy actions required for widespread adoption of QKD aboard satellites. The center’s work reveals a complex web of government and industry standards organizations — most unrelated to space — that must reach a consensus on the reliability of QKD for broader cybersecurity.

We operate the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.