SES is considering a satellite quantum cryptography system

PARIS — A technology demonstration satellite to be developed by SES could be the prototype for a satellite carrier constellation that provides communications with quantum encryption.

The European Space Agency and SES have officially signed the contract for Eagle-1 during the International Astronautical Congress ceremony here. SES will lead a consortium of 20 companies to build and operate the small satellite, which is scheduled to launch in 2024 and last for a three-year mission.

Eagle-1’s primary goal is to test long-distance quantum key distribution (QKD), the core technology of quantum encryption. Space offers the means to conduct QKD using laser communications over greater distances than what is possible with ground-based systems.

“Eagle-1 is the main building block of a new major European quantum key system. This is the first satellite-based quantum cryptography system for European cyber security,” said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher during the signing. “It is also an important step towards a secure and scalable European quantum communications infrastructure.”

The spacecraft weighing about 300 kilograms will be built by the Italian company Sitael, and Tesat will provide the optical communication terminals. The spacecraft will operate in a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, making several flybys a day over European ground stations, which will be enough for testing, said Alberto Rubio, ESA’s project manager. He said the launch will take place on a European vehicle as part of a contract to be announced soon.

The cost of the program, including satellite and ground systems, is about 130 million euros ($130 million), said Elodie Viau, ESA’s director of telecommunications. Eight ESA member countries — 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 may be included in the European Commission’s planned Secure Interconnection satellite system under the European Quantum Communications Initiative (EuroQCI) programme. “EuroQCI is an initiative of the European Union to create, develop and deploy this pan-European quantum-secure communications network,” said Gilles Lequet of the European Commission. “That’s why we see this Eagle-1 as a key step in which we are investing.”

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

“This is a very important project in its own right, but I think it has wider implications and fits well with other programs and initiatives under the SES, ESA or the Commission,” he added.

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

The biggest software difference between the Eagle-1 project and Arqit’s QKDSat lies in Eagle-1’s relationship with EuroQCI. “The Arqit project also involves some non-EU countries, and therefore the European Commission is not involved in the Arqit program,” Viault said. The UK is no longer part of the European Union.

Eagle-1 was not the only quantum communication project announced during the conference. On September 19, Thales Alenia Space announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Singapore-based SpeQtral to test the SpeQtral-1 satellite and ground equipment developed by Thales Alenia. The satellite is planned to be launched in 2024, and the tests – until 2025. SES is considering a satellite quantum cryptography system

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