The UK’s innovation agency has awarded a £23m project to build a quantum key distribution (QKD) payload for a satellite. The first small satellite for low Earth orbit (LEO) is being built by the European Space Agency (ESA)
The “Quantum Payload Factory” project commissioned by InnovateUK is led by a London-based service provider startup called Arqit and aims to establish the world’s first commercial QKD satellite constellation. This is a considerable challenge given China’s lead with a QKD satellite in space and European satellite operator SES also working on the technology (see links below).
The partners developing the payload include BT, Toshiba Research labs, Fraunhofer UK Research as well as NU Quantum, London-based quantum fibre specialist Orca Computing and STFC Laboratories. The photonic quantum chips for the payload will be developed by AegiQ in Sheffield: Startup raises £1.4m for quantum photonic chip
Quantum keys can encrypt data for transmission over conventional fibre links across any distance, but QKD itself is limited over fibre to around 150km. Beyond this, ‘trusted nodes’ are required, but at major risk of creating security vulnerabilities.
A number of fibre QKD networks are being built, including in the UK, but satellites provide the means for distributing keys across very large distances between end users spread across countries or continents.
Satellite components in QKD networks have already been demonstrated by Fraunhofer in Germany.
InnovateUK sees this as an opportunity for the UK quantum technology industry to leapfrog other countries by creating a capability to manufacture the next generation of space QKD payloads here in the UK.
The technologies will be used in the second generation of Arqit satellites and opens up the potential for use in systems such as the OneWeb LEO constellation which was rescued by the UK goverment earlier in 2020 to be a technology platform.
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