Cubesats are the mainstay of the growing satellite market. They get better, smaller, and more powerful by the year. An interdisciplinary team in Italy works on the quantum SeQBO project. SeQBO is a multiple-phase project that started in 2018. I came across the team’s technical paper, “SeQBO – A miniaturized system for Quantum Key Distribution,” published at the 71st International Astronautical Congress – The CyberSpace Edition this past October 2020.
Funded by the Italian Ministry of Defence, SeQBO is being developed by Argotec in tandem with the University of Padua. Argotec is an aerospace engineering company with deep expertise in space missions and avionics. It is based in the northern city of Turin and with a subsidiary in Maryland, United States. The University of Padua is the second-oldest university in Italy. It has a strong heritage advancing quantum research for communications, quantum optics, and QKD.
SeQBO conceptualizes a miniature Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) system onboard a 12U cubesat architecture. The Matera Laser Ranging Observatory (MLRO) in the southern city of Matera is the ground station selected for SeQBO because it is capable of performing QDK. SeQBO’s miniature system includes Argotec’s high-performance On-Board Computer (OBC) with the codename Hack. This custom-OBC manages and processes both the satellite and the data encryption. SeQBO also integrates a Quantum Communications System (QCS) responsible for implementing the QKD protocol. It includes the photon generation and optical transmitter.
The team of SeQBO has reached several milestones to date. The in-lab static test of SeQBO at the University of Padua successfully exchanged the encrypted key with a simulated ground station. It also exchanged the encrypted information between the simulated satellite at an in orbit altitude of 400km – 1000km to the simulated ground station. For the sake of comparison, the Chinese Micius quantum communications satellite, with its historic launch in 2016, orbits with an altitude averaging approximately 500 – 600km.
I connected recently with Alessandro Balossino, Head of the R&D Unit at Agotec and the SeQBO Project Manager. With a background in mechatronics, robotics, and mechanical engineering, Alessandro explained the following during our call:
“Since we’re working at Argotec in the small satellite market and there are a lot of players, we’re trying to be very aggressive on the innovation side. We understood early on that there’s still very little in this field of quantum with small satellites…”
Alessandro expanded on the topic of innovation.
“We know very well that quantum cryptography is a dual-use technology. It has a clear technological advantage for the Department of Defense and many other institutions. But it is not that easy to miniaturize so much an optical transmission system with a fine pointing system and all the related avionics. So what you need to do is to think smart and understand what you really need. There is no room for redundancy and for systems that you don’t need. We try to keep the quantum payload as simple as possible. Luckily, here in Italy, we have a lot of heritage in all of these fields that we work on.”
The second and more expensive phase of SeQBO is currently under evaluation by the Ministry of Defence. This phase maps out the dynamic tests for the next few years. It also conceptualizes the fine pointing system, which will simulate the pointing and the transmission of the encrypted key in an in-lab environment. This second phase also maps out the tentative schedule for the transmission tests in-orbit to the ground station at Matera.
Looking at the future ahead, Alessandro previewed some advances of a new project at Argotec and with funding from the European Commission. This new project aims to develop another 12U cubesat capable of conducting QKD with a 5G network. This new project would cater to financial institutions that need the high-speed transmission of data and robust security.
Alessandro makes this poignant observation towards the end of our conversation.
“Sometimes it is not easy to compete with big players because they can do a lot of lobbying and have a lot of support… But we know that innovation often comes from startups or small companies. I think there should continue to be more help across the world to support all players, including small companies and startups. At Argotec we also try to cooperate as much as we can with universities and research centers in Italy, Europe, and the United States. Sometimes brilliant ideas are stuck in a lab and they don’t scale from the lab to the real world. We also scout for new talent.”
I am always curious to understand individual trajectories in the space industry. Personal stories can serve as inspiration and touch points to connect with others. Alessandro shared some insights into his journey.
“I was inspired by STEM subjects. Not specifically about space. When I was studying robotics in the university, I had the opportunity to conduct an internship as Junior Visiting Researcher at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2012. It was almost a random event in my life. But starting from there, I fell in love with the space sector. When I returned to Europe, I started working in the space industry. Once I started, it became a sort of addiction… Then when I joined Argotec, the SeQBO project was already underway. I totally fell into this quantum space niche. But I really like it.”
There is a subtle yet growing trend to leverage quantum technologies in the space industry. A quantum cubesat requires precise electrical and computational power for a high degree of fine-pointing accuracy in addition to a compact optical payload. Although relatively localized to just a few, quantum research teams in Italy and across the globe are embracing the cubesat revolution. These initiatives will be sure to pave the way for more technological breakthroughs.