CSA Funds Supporting Quantum Technology in Space

Credit: SpaceQ/Canadian Space Agency.

As reported earlier in SpaceQ, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) awarded $16 million in various contributions and funding for space-related technology as part of the Space Technology Development Program’s (STDP) A07. While many of the technologies were for advanced technology, four of the companies particularly stand out: the “Quantum Technologies” group that are looking to leverage quantum mechanics and quantum computing for space-based applications.

In an email exchange with SpaceQ, a CSA spokesperson said that “considering the benefits of quantum technologies are very relevant for space applications and also considering there is a strong national expertise in this field, the CSA dedicated a category specifically to support quantum technology projects in Canada.” They pointed to “Quantum Key Distribution, advanced scientific instruments, Earth-based situational awareness, [and] quantum Earth observation sensors” as some of the potential application for quantum technology in space.

They added that this is in line with the CSA’s “contribution to the definition of Canada’s National Quantum Strategy,” and with their contribution to the Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite (QEYSSat). 

In turn, the National Quantum Strategy points to three key missions: to “make Canada a world leader in the continued development, deployment and use of quantum computing hardware and software,” to “ensure the privacy and cyber-security of Canadians in a quantum-enabled world through a national secure quantum communications network and a post-quantum cryptography initiative,” and to “enable the Government of Canada and key industries to be developers and early adopters of new quantum sensing technologies.” 

With that in mind, it’s useful to look at the four companies that were awarded contributions for their technology. The maximum CSA contribution for each company in this group was $500K, and projects are expected to take around three years. They’re all at comparatively early stages of development, and the CSA also said that “on average the pool of applications submitted under this AO were reporting an average start TRL [technology readiness level] of 3” (out of 9.)

Kitchener, Ontario’s Single Quantum Systems Inc. is focused on developing quantum optical technology involved in sensing and communications. In particular, their website points to “high-efficiency broadband single-photon detectors” as key products that the company has under development. Just as light sensors are a critical part of modern optical imaging and telecommunications, single-photon detectors are a key part of quantum computing and imaging as well, including in space. 

That may be why they received a $500,000 CSA contribution to study “the impact of orbital radiation on next-generation high-performance semiconductor nanowire single-photon detectors.”  Radiation is a serious problem for space-based technology, especially when you leave Earth’s magnetosphere, which is why, as detailed in recent SpaceQ coverage, Canadian nuclear researchers are looking at ways to manage or block it. While the CSA did not provide details on the award, cutting-edge quantum instruments like single-photon detectors are some of the most likely to be affected, and so researching how they’re affected would be valuable. 

Sherbrooke QC’s SBQuantum is aiming to employ a striking quantum technology to measure fluctuations in Earth’s magnetosphere: manufactured diamonds. Nitrogen is a common impurity in diamonds, and diamonds can be made with two carbon atoms being replaced by an nitrogen atom and an adjacent vacancy. These nitrogen-vacancies create a pair of free electrons in the diamonds, whose quantum state can be measured with lasers. 

As the electrons are affected by the magnetic fields around them, SBQuantum can use the measurements to study and model the magnetic field in that location. They call this “magnetic intelligence”, and say that the detectors can be made small enough to fit on aerial and aquatic drones or on small satellites. 

Terrestrial applications for magnetic intelligence can include detection for national defence purposes, modeling underground or undersea infrastructure and checking it for flaws or damage, and unobtrusive and mobile metal detectors. Tracking magnetic fields is also useful in space, and so the CSA provided them $500,000 in contributions to provide “high accuracy diamond magnetometry for space exploration.” 

The other two companies are looking at the issue of Quantum Key Distribution. The CSA page for QEYSSat satellite, which is a demonstration mission for QKD explained that it is “a technology that creates virtually unbreakable encryption codes and will provide Canada with secure communications in the age of quantum computing.” As quantum computers can be used to break modern encryption, new encryption techniques may become necessary, and QKD ensures secure communications by creating matched pairs of photons where eavesdropping would be spotted through changes in their quantum states. The photons serve as keys for encrypted communications over the standard internet, without the need for public-key encryption or the difficulty of other private-key solutions. QEYSSat has been identified as a priority technology going back to 2015,

Owing to the difficulty of generating and transporting these photons there are still questions about the technology’s real-world usefulness, particularly by the NSA, but it is a fruitful target for research. Each company is exploring a different form of QKD, and has received awards related to it. 

Waterloo ON’s evolutionQ is a quantum computing security firm that “offers a comprehensive and customizable suite of quantum-safe security solutions” based on QKD, including a specific focus on building chained networks of links, allowing messages to travel far beyond the distance limitations of current QKD links over terrestrial fiber optics. They were awarded a $270,249 contribution by the CSA for work on an “integrated fiber and QKD network laboratory environment’.

Finally, Maple, ON’s QEYnet and their work on quantum key distribution has featured in SpaceQ coverage going back to 2018, and QEYnet received a $499,905 CSA contribution for “Vulnerability Mitigation Of A Quantum Source For Space-Based Quantum Communication.” Their approach has been to transmit the quantum keys on satellites. They acknowledge the usefulness of networks like the ones that evolutionQ are creating, but they say that these networks “cannot easily cross water or harsh terrain”. 

Their approach using satellites avoids this issue, as satellites’ position in orbit and motion through space can transport paired keys without being affected by current limitations. A key can be transmitted to a satellite, the satellite can be left to travel over a second site, and then transmitted back down. Once the keys are in place, they can be used for verification of normal encrypted communication.

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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