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China’s quantum satellite performing even better than expected, says team scientist

The world’s first quantum satellite Micius is doing “very well” in space after its launch earlier this month, with all on-board scientific instruments meeting or exceeding expectations, a senior scientist involved in the project said.

Major preparations were completed a couple of days ago, paving the way for ground-breaking experiments in communications and physics, Professor Wang Jianyu told the South China Morning Post.

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Last week, some astronomy enthusiasts observed unusual light beams at a ground station in Xinglong Observatory, Beijing. One of the photos was posted by high energy physicist Dr Cao Jun on his social media account on Sunday.

The Micius was sending a green laser beam to the ground while the ground station was shooting a red laser to the satellite, according to Cao. The photo exposure took 200 seconds, creating a red “fan” and a bright green line cutting across the starry night scape, he wrote on Weibo.

Wang, who led the development of the scientific instruments on Micius, confirmed that the photo had captured one of the “warming up exercises”.

The green beam was laser light at the 532-nanometre bandwidth, and the red bream was 671nm. Both were signal beams used by scientists to establish a physical link between the satellite and a ground station before the start of quantum communication – “just like a handshake before the talk”, Wang said.

“I am surprised by the photo. It is unofficial, but stunningly beautiful. The quantum experiments cannot be detected by the naked eye, but with this firm and reliable handshake, I’m confident that the following experiments will proceed very well.”

Over the last fortnight scientists and engineers have been testing and calibrating sophisticated hardware in space and on the ground to evaluate whether the satellite worked as designed.

“All parameters are up to the required standards, and some even higher than the best we had hoped for,” he said.

The Micius was launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia on August 16. Its mission includes establishing a quantum key distribution network and performing quantum entanglement experiments in space for the first time.

The mission has a number of aims built around the developing field of quantum physics. One is to build a global quantum internet with unbreakable security, meaning it cannot be hacked.

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A broader goal is to explore unknown dimensions of the universe that left Einstein scratching his head, such as whether the change of quantum state in one entangled particle can be reflected on the other instantly, regardless the distance between the two.

Before the launch there was concern whether the Chinese satellite would work, as all previous quantum experiments had been carried out on earth between fixed stations.

The Micius was orbiting at high speed and the receiving telescope on the ground less than a metre wide. To exchange single photos that carried quantum information between the satellite and the ground stations was “as difficult as throwing a coin into a water bottle on a high speed train from more than 50km away”, according to a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences involved in the project.

It is still uncertain when the formal experiments will begin. Some physicists working in top research institutes overseas told the Post that they were closely following the Chinese experiments because they could open a portal to the future of science and technology.