Quantum technologies are on track to reach new heights – quite literally: quantum company Q-CTRL has plans to send ultra-sensitive quantum sensors and navigation devices to space, as part of a mission to explore the moon for water and other resources that will support NASA astronauts in future landings.
The Australian company, which applies the principles of control engineering to improve the hardware performance of quantum devices, will provide the quantum technology to assist un-crewed missions organized by the Seven Sisters space industry consortium, and planned to start in 2023.
Formed last year by space start-up Fleet Space, the consortium is working to send nanosatellites and exploration sensors to the moon to search for resources, and generate useful data for future human exploration. The information gathered will inform NASA's Artemis program, which will land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, creating a sustainable human presence for later crewed Martian exploration.
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An outer-space mission inevitably calls for next-generation tools. Quantum sensors, in this context, show a lot of promise: they leverage the extremely fragile state of tiny quantum particles to provide very precise measurements. While the instability of quantum states can be a major obstacle in other fields such as quantum computing, in quantum sensing it is the exact opposite; the sensitivity of quantum particles to disturbances can be used to create ultra-responsive measuring instruments.
In space, this could mean remotely detecting liquid water and mineral deposits through quantum-based gravity detection and magnetic field sensors.
The technology could also be used for precision navigation on the moon: quantum sensors can effectively measure a vehicle's acceleration and rotation, enabling navigations without needing to connect to a GPS or satellite.
"This means that for a mission with a lengthy loss of telemetry contact, for example sensors or vehicles on the dark side of the moon, a vehicle can navigate accurately not over hours, but over days and weeks," Michael Biercuk, the CEO of Q-CTRL, told ZDNet.
The company is teaming up with AI-based navigation hardware firm Advanced Navigation to conduct the joint development of a navigation system that is a hybrid of quantum and classical techniques. The two companies have previously described quantum-enhanced precision navigation and timing as a revolutionary development in the field.
Q-CTRL, as a company that provides quantum control engineering, mostly to stabilize quantum systems against disturbances and augment their output, has a heavy focus on software development; but as Biercuk explains, building hardware is also central to the business's model.
"Some of our customers in quantum sensing are already using our software tools to augment their own devices for things like fundamental physics experimentation. We take that view several steps further with our in-house hardware effort, leveraging quantum control from the point of system design," he says.
As part of Q-CTRL's partnership with the Seven Sisters consortium, the company will be using its own in-house hardware effort to build the quantum sensors and navigation systems that will be sent on lunar missions. According to Biercuk, the team is currently building prototype field-deployable systems and will spend the next few years moving towards space qualification.
Quantum sensors, explained the Q-CTRL's CEO, are effectively much closer to market than a full-scale quantum computer: instead of manipulating millions of individually controlled quantum states, sensors only require the manipulation of a single quantum system. With a lot of research already dedicated to the field of quantum sensing, some applications are expected to emerge soon, with market-ready devices to follow promptly.
In the UK, for example, the government has for many years invested in quantum sensing through its National Quantum Technology Program (NQTP). The University of Birmingham leads an £80 million ($111 million) consortium for quantum sensors and metrology, and a quantum metrology institute was recently created as part of the National Physics Laboratory.
Speaking about the NQTP at a recent webinar, the head of the quantum metrology institute Rhys Lewis argued that quantum sensing would effectively lead the start of the quantum revolution: "There is a huge amount of work in quantum sensors and imaging, and I think this is where the most interesting first products will come out of the program," said Lewis at the time.
As ambitious as space-bound exploration missions may sound, Q-CTRL's CEO, for his part, is already thinking about the next steps for the company's efforts in quantum sensing. Biercuk's plans include high-stability navigation systems for autonomous vehicle networks and maritime applications, as well as geospatial intelligence from low-earth orbit.
"For instance, we know from past scientific missions that we can monitor water – underground, on the surface, and in ice – using gravimetry," says Biercuk. "We hope to develop persistent gravimetric survey as a critical new tool in managing climate impacts on areas like agriculture." Those are only a few examples of the universe of possibilities that quantum technologies are expected to open – and not all of them based in space.