SES considering quantum cryptography satellite system

SES considering quantum cryptography satellite system

PARIS: A technology demonstration satellite for which SES will lead development could be a prototype of a satellite operator’s constellation that provides quantum encrypted communications.

The European Space Agency and SES formally signed the contact for Eagle-1 during a ceremony at the International Astronautical Congress here. SES will lead a consortium of 20 companies to build and operate the smallsat, which is scheduled to launch in 2024 for a three-year mission.

The primary goal of Eagle-1 is to test long-distance quantum key distribution (QKD), a core technology for quantum encryption. Space offers a means of conducting QKD using laser communications over longer distances than is possible with ground-based systems.

“Eagle-1 is an important component of a major new European quantum key system. It is the first satellite-based quantum cryptography system for European cybersecurity,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said at the signing event. “It is also an important step towards a secure and scalable European quantum communications infrastructure.”

The spacecraft, which weighs about 300 kilograms, will be built by the Italian company Sitael, with Tesat providing the optical communications terminals. The spacecraft will operate in a sun-synchronous orbit of 500 kilometers, making a few passes a day over European ground stations that will be enough for the tests, said Alberto Rubio, ESA project manager. The launch will be in a European vehicle, he said, as part of a deal to be announced in the near future.

The cost of the program, including satellite and ground systems, is about 130 million euros ($130 million), said Elodie Viau, ESA director of telecommunications. Eight ESA member states (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland) are contributing to the project, along with support from the European Commission.

The technologies demonstrated on Eagle-1 could be incorporated into the secure connectivity satellite system planned by the European Commission as part of the European Quantum Communications Initiative, or EuroQCI, program. “EuroQCI is an initiative of the European Union to build, develop and deploy this pan-European secure quantum communications network,” said Gilles Lequeux of the European Commission. “That is why we see this Eagle-1 as a key step and for which we contribute financially.”

Steve Collar, executive director of SES, said his company is involved in Eagle-1 because of the potential for future commercial systems separate from the EU effort. “We believe there is commercialization potential for this system and we will begin that commercialization with Eagle-1,” he said. “If that looks good, and we think there is business there, that should lead to a small constellation of satellites that will provide these services globally.”

“It’s a very important project in itself, but I think it has broader implications and fits well with other programs and initiatives that are ongoing, whether within SES, within ESA or within the Commission,” he added.

Eagle-1 is not the only QKD satellite project in Europe or in which ESA is involved. The agency is working with UK-based Arqit on quantum encryption technologies for that company’s planned satellite system.

The biggest programmatic difference between the Eagle-1 project and Arqit’s QKDSat is Eagle-1’s ties to EuroQCI. “Some non-EU member states are also involved in the Arqit project and therefore the European Commission is not involved in the Arqit program,” said Viau. The United Kingdom is no longer part of the European Union.

Eagle-1 was not the only quantum communications project announced during the conference. On September 19, Thales Alenia Space announced a memorandum of understanding with Singapore-based SpeQtral to conduct tests with the SpeQtral-1 satellite and ground-based equipment developed by Thales Alenia. The satellite is scheduled to launch in 2024 and tests will take place in 2025.

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