Harry Potter and Star Trek fans, rejoice! Teleportation is real. Using powerful lasers and optics to manipulate photons, or units of light, researchers in China set a record for teleporting a photon more than 10 miles (16 km), TIME reported in 2010. Now a different team of physicists at the University of Science and Technology of China in Shanghai says it has shattered that record, claiming to have sent a photon more than 60 miles (97 km).
Quantum teleportation, which has been around since 1997, is a little different than what you see in sci-fi movies. Considered “one of the holy grails of practical quantum communication,” as the scientists write in their abstract, teleportation is the ability to essentially move one object from one place to another without traversing the space in between. But as Forbes explains, the actual object is not moving from point A to point B. Rather, the distant photon mirrors the information contained by the original photon, essentially becoming an identical twin.
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The team’s greatest contribution is not necessarily the distance it made the data travel but the method it used to harness the 1.3-watt laser beam that carries it. The longer a beam of light travels, the more it spreads out, causing the photon to lose information and trail off course. To keep the beam on target, the researchers created a technique that focuses and steers the laser. Though beaming up humans and animals à la Star Trek is not on the agenda anytime soon, as the technology becomes more sophisticated, it will likely be applied to military communication.
What’s the big deal? As Matthew Luce, a researcher at the Defense Group Inc.’s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, told TIME in 2010:
Theoretically, this method “cannot be cracked or intercepted,” says Luce. If the photons in the laser beam are observed by a third party, the particles themselves will be altered due to a law of physics called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that measuring a particle alters it. As such, the sender and receiver would be immediately informed that someone was snooping.
As Technology Review notes, “these guys clearly have their eye on the possibility of satellite-based quantum cryptography, which would provide ultra-secure communications around the world.” Experts say this all-but-unbreakable code would be a perfect way to transmit classified information such as military directives or codes.
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