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Connecting Canada and Europe through quantum satellite communication

University of Waterloo professor Dr. Thomas Jennewein has his sights set high and wide — specifically on a quantum satellite orbiting high above the Earth to connect Canada and Europe via a secure quantum communication link. A new HyperSpace collaboration envisions secure quantum connections across the Atlantic Ocean.

HyperSpace, a recently started three-year collaboration between researchers and funding partners in Canada and Europe, including Jennewein’s team at Waterloo, are aiming to bring this dream to fruition. The goal of the collaboration is to demonstrate the feasibility of a transatlantic quantum satellite link capable of distributing photons entangled in multiple ways between quantum ground stations located in Canada and Europe. The teams will focus on research into integrated quantum photonics and optical space communications, including novel protocols and quantum link technologies.

“By the end of the HyperSpace project, we want to have the satellite mission architecture ready, in essence to present a ‘how to’ guide for an EU-Canada quantum satellite mission,” says Jennewein, a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC). “We want to identify the potential technological bottlenecks, so we know to prioritize these areas as we work to make this future satellite a reality.”

Entanglement distribution is a crucial component to building the future "quantum internet" which will be a secure global quantum communication network. The HyperSpace satellite is envisioned as a double link node with two independent telescopes onboard the satellite. This dual link allows for the distribution of entangled photons simultaneously between widely separated quantum ground stations. Logistically, for the HyperSpace satellite to be capable of a transatlantic link, it needs to have a high orbit, which means the photons are highly likely to be lost as they travel from space to the ground. To solve this problem, the HyperSpace research teams are investigating how to make these longer satellite links feasible, by sending photons that are entangled in multiple degrees of freedom (frequency, time, polarisation), since they are more robust against loss and subsequent errors.

One of the use cases of the HyperSpace satellite is to create an encryption link between two quantum ground stations via quantum key distribution (QKD). QKD is a cryptographic communication method whose security is theoretically guaranteed by the principles of quantum mechanics, which enables two parties to generate a shared “secret key” which can then be used to encrypt and decrypt publicly shared messages.

Jennewein and members of his Quantum Photonics Lab are leading the planning and development work for the HyperSpace mission requirements, as well as providing technical support for testing the novel technologies. Jennewein’s team at IQC is already well-versed in quantum satellite technology, having previously demonstrated free-space QKD to a moving receiver, which led to the current Canadian Space Agency’s Quantum EncrYption and Science Satellite (QEYSSat) mission, slated to launch in 2025. QEYSSat is a low Earth orbiting satellite that will demonstrate satellite QKD between quantum ground stations at the University of Waterloo and the Canadian Space Agency in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. Jennewein is the QEYSSat science team principal investigator.

“As an Austrian now researching in Canada, it has been my dream to connect Canada and Europe through quantum communications,” says Jennewein. “A connection like this is a huge stepping-stone to advancing today’s wired internet and could help build the quantum internet.”

The HyperSpace collaboration is co-funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) and the European Union (within the Horizon Europe program). Jennewein’s projects contribute to the Canadian effort to build a Quantum Communication Infrastructure and align strongly with the goals of the National Quantum Strategy.

Collaborating institutes include the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto and the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Canada, the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering (IOF) in Germany, the Universitŕ degli Studi di Pavia and Universitŕ degli Studi di Padova in Italy, the Commissariat ŕ l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives CEA-LETI in France, and the Vienna University of Technology in Austria.

This article was adapted and republished with permission from the University of Waterloo.