The Future of Computing: Towards a Quantum Internet

quantun_internetFor decades, the dream of quantum computing – a system that makes direct use of quantum-mechanical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement, to perform operations on data- has been just that. Much the same is true of principles that expand on this concept, such as quantum encryption and a quantum internet. But thanks to ongoing studies and experiments by researchers and scientists, that dream may be closer to fruition than ever.

This time the progress comes from a research team out of Professor Nicolas Gisin lab’s in the physics department at the University of Geneva. The team achieved the teleportation of the quantum state of a photon – this time, the photon’s polarization – to a crystal-encased photon more than 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away. The distance breaks the previous record of 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) set 10 years ago by the same team using the same method.

quantum_crystalThis is the latest in a series of experiments the group, led by physicist Félix Bussières, have conducted over the last decade in an effort to better understand quantum data transfer. In this particular experiment, the researchers stored one photon in a crystal, essentially creating a solid-state memory bank. They sent another photon of a different wavelength 25 km away through optical fiber, whereupon they had it interact with a third photon.

Because the first two photons were entangled – a quantum property whereby particles can speak to each other across an infinite distance – the interaction sent the data to the photo stored in the memory bank, where the team was able to retrieve it. Or as the team explained, using pool balls as an anology:

It is a bit like a game of billiards, with a third photon hitting the first which obliterates both of them. Scientists measure this collision. But the information contained in the third photon is not destroyed – on the contrary it finds its way to the crystal which also contains the second entangled photon.

quantum-entanglement3This is all in keeping with the concept of quantum teleportation – the moving of quantum data from one location to another without having to travel the distance between them. That means that the speed at which data moves isn’t necessarily limited by the constraints of space and time. In that sense, it’s easier to think of this kind of teleporting not as a “beam me up” scenario, but as a kind of instantaneous awareness between two points.

While this may not sound as exciting as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ansible communicator, the Alcubierre warp drive, or the “Star Trek”-style transporter, it opens up startling possibilities. For instance, in addition to bringing us closer to hard drives that can store quantum bits (aka. qubits), this is a major step in the direction of a quantum internet and encryption- where information is sent around the world instantaneously and is extremely secure.

quantum-teleportation-star-trails-canary-islands-1-640x353This also opens doors for space exploration, where astronauts in space, rovers on Mars, and satellites in deep space will be able to communicate instantly with facilities here on Earth. For non-quantum physicists, the novel aspect of this experiment is that the team achieved teleportation of data across the kind of optic fiber that forms the basis of modern-day telecommunications, which means no major overhaul will be needed to make quantum internet a reality.

As physicists continue to push the boundaries of our understanding about the quantum world, we’re getting closer to translating these kinds of advancements in market applications. Already, quantum computing and quantum encryption are making inroads into the sectors of banking security, medical research and other areas in need of huge computing muscle and super-fast information transfer.

^With the rise of a potential quantum Internet on the horizon, we could see the next jump in communication happen over the next couple of decades. So while we’re a long way off from trying to pry quantum teleportation and entanglement from the grip of the theoretical realm, scientists are making headway, if only a handful of kilometers at a time. But every bit helps, seeing as how routing stations and satellites can connect these distances into a worldwide network.

In fact, research conducted by other labs have not only confirmed that quantum teleportation can reach up to 143 km (89 miles) in distance, but that greater and greater properties can be beamed. This distance is especially crucial since it happens to be close to what lies between the Earth and a satellite in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). In short, we humans could construct a quantum internet using optic cables or satellites, mirroring the state of telecommunications today.

And when that happens, get ready for an explosion in learning, processing and information, the likes of which has not been seen since the creation of the printing press or the first internet revolution!


News from Mars: Opportunity Still at Work

opportunityAfter ten years in service (when it wasn’t supposed to last longer than nine months), one would think that left for the Opportunity rover to do. And yet, Opportunity is still hard at work, thanks in no small part to its solar panels being their cleanest in years. In its latest research stint, NASA’s decade-old Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is inspecting a section of crater-rim ridgeline chosen as a priority target due to evidence of a water-related mineral.

Orbital observations of the site by another NASA spacecraft – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – found a spectrum with the signature of aluminum bound to oxygen and hydrogen. Researchers regard that signature as a marker for a mineral called montmorillonite, which is in a class of clay minerals (called smectites) that forms when basalt is altered under wet and slightly acidic conditions. The exposure of it extends about 240 meters (800 feet) north to south on the western rim of Endeavour Crater.

Mars_Reconnaissance_OrbiterThe detection was made possible using the MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) combined with rover observations some 3 kms (2 miles) north on the crater’s western rim. Rocks exposed there contain evidence for an iron-bearing smectite – called nontronite – as well as for montmorillonite. That site yielded evidence for an ancient environment with water that would have been well-suited for use by microbes, evidence that could boost our understanding of what Mars looked like billions of years ago.

Opportunity reached the northern end of the montmorillonite-bearing exposure last month – a high point known as “Pillinger Point.” Opportunity’s international science team chose that informal name in honor of Colin Pillinger (1943-2014), the British principal investigator for the Beagle 2 project, which attempted to set a research lander on Mars a few weeks before Opportunity landed there in January of 2004.

Beagle 2Opportunity Principal Investigator Steve Squyres, of Cornell University, had this to say about Pillinger:

Colin and his team were trying to get to Mars at the same time that we were, and in some ways they faced even greater challenges than we did. Our team has always had enormous respect for the energy and enthusiasm with which Colin Pillinger undertook the Beagle 2 mission. He will be missed.

Though selected as a science destination, Pillinger Point also offers a scenic vista from atop the western rim of Endeavour Crater, which is about 22 kms (14 miles) in diameter. The picture below shows a section of a color shot taken by Opportunity’s panoramic camera (Pancam) upon arrival. A full-size view of this picture can be seen by going to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars Exploration Rovers webpage.

Pillinger_pointInitial measurements at this site with the element-identifying alpha particle X-ray spectrometer at the end of Opportunity’s arm indicate that bright-toned veins in the rock contain calcium sulfate. Scientists deduce this mineral was deposited as water moved through fractures on Endeavour’s rim. The rover found similar veins of calcium sulfate farther north along the rim while investigating there earlier last month.

As Opportunity investigated this site and other sites farther south along the rim, the rover had more energy than usual. This was due to the solar cells being in rare form, says Opportunity Project Manager John Callas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

The solar panels have not been this clean since the first year of the mission. It’s amazing, when you consider that accumulation of dust on the solar panels was originally expected to cause the end of the mission in less than a year. Now it’s as if we’d been a ship out at sea for 10 years and just picked up new provisions at a port of call, topping off our supplies.

Both Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, benefited from sporadic dust-cleaning events in past years. However, on the ridge that Opportunity has been navigating since late 2013, winds have removed dust more steadily, day by day, than either rover has experienced elsewhere. The rover’s signs of aging – including a stiff shoulder joint and occasional losses of data – have not grown more troublesome in the past year, and no new symptoms have appeared.

mountsharp_galecraterJPL’s Jennifer Herman, power-subsystem engineer added:

It’s easy to forget that Opportunity is in the middle of a Martian winter right now. Because of the clean solar arrays, clear skies and favorable tilt, there is more energy for operations now than there was any time during the previous three Martian summers. Opportunity is now able to pull scientific all-nighters for three nights in a row — something she hasn’t had the energy to do in years.

During Opportunity’s first decade on Mars and the 2004-2010 career of Spirit, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Project yielded a range of findings about wet environmental conditions on ancient Mars – some very acidic, others milder and more conducive to supporting life. These findings have since been supplemented and confirmed by findings by the Curiosity Rover, which hopes to find plenty of clues as to the nature of possible life on Mars when it reaches Mount Sharp later this summer.


News from Mars: Put Your Name on a Crater!

mars_lifeMars is a interesting and varied place, with enough mysteries to sate appetites both subtle and gross. But as we come to study it up close and get to know it better, a peculiar challenge arises. Basically, there are thousands of geological features on the Martian surface that don’t yet have names. Up until now, only those mountains, hills and craters that are observable from space have been designated.

With the Mars rovers pouring over the surface, each new feature is being named and designated by NASA scientists – The Gale Crater, Yellowknife Bay, Mount Sharp, etc. But what of the public? Given that this is the age of public space travel where regular people have access to the process, shouldn’t we be able to toss our hats in the ring and get a chance at naming Martian features?

Mars_impact_craterThat’s the goal of Uwingu, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing public participation in space exploration. In addition to naming exoplanets, they have begun a project to that gives people the opportunity to name over 550,000 craters on Mars. By getting people to pledge donations in exchange for naming rights, the company hopes to raise over $10M to help fund space science and education.

The project touched off in late February, with their map of Mars uploaded to the site and half a million plus craters indicated. Just like how Apollo astronauts have named landing site landmarks during their Moon missions or how Mars scientists have named features they’ve encountered on robotic missions, Uwingu proclaims that, “Now it’s your turn.”

Mars_cratersNot only are there craters to name, but people can also help name the map grid rectangles of all the Districts and Provinces in Uwingu’s “address system” – which they say is the first ever address system for Mars. Prices for naming craters vary, depending on the size of the crater, and begin at $5 dollars apiece. For each crater a person purchases and names, Uwingu gives them a shareable Web link and a naming certificate.

In the past, Uwingu has been a source of controversy, particularly with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for naming celestial objects and planetary features. In general, they are opposed to Uwingu’s methods of selling naming rights to the public. As the organization states on their website:

The IAU is the internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies and surface features on them. And names are not sold, but assigned according to internationally accepted rules.

Mars_craters1But Alan Stern, NASA’s former science program and mission director, claims that Uwingu is independent. He also stated that in 50 years of Mars exploration, only about 15,000 features have ever been named. What’s more, he and the rest of the Uwingu team – which includes several space notables, historians and authors – know that the names likely won’t officially be approved by the IAU.

Nevertheless, they claim that they will be similar to the names given to features on Mars by the mission science teams (such as Mt. Sharp on Mars –the IAU-approved name is Aeolis Mons) or even like Pike’s Peak, a mountain in Colorado which was named by the public, in a way. As early settlers started calling it that, it soon became the only name people recognized. Uwingu hopes that their names will also stick, given time.

mountsharp_galecraterIn the past, Stern has admitted that having people pay to suggest names with no official standing is sure to be controversial, but that he’s willing to take the chance – and the heat – to try and innovative ways to provide funding in today’s climate of funding cuts. As he stated in a series of recent interviews:

Mars scientists and Apollo astronauts have named features on the Red Planet and the Moon without asking for the IAU’s permission… We’re trying to do a public good. It’s still the case that nobody in this company gets paid. We really want to create a new lane on that funding highway for people who are out of luck due to budget cuts. This is how we’re how we’re trying to change the world for a little better.

He also pointed out that Uwingu is independent, and that this map is one they are generating themselves through crowdfunding and public participation. Whether or not the names stick is anybody’s guess, but the point is that the process will not be determined by any single gatekeeper or authority – in this case, the IAU. It will reflect a new era of public awareness and involvement in space.

mars-mapIn the past, Uwingu’s procedure has been to put half of the money they make into a fund to be given out as grants, and since they are a commercial company, the rest of the money helps pay the their bills. So no matter what – even if you pitch a name and its outvoted by another, or the names just fail to stick when the cartographers finish mapping Mars – you’ll still be raising money for a good cause.

For those interested in naming a crater on the Red Planet, click on the link here to go to Uwingu’s website. Once there, simply click on a spot on the map, select the crater you want (the price for the crater is indicated when you select it), offer a name and explain why you’ve chosen it. And be sure to check out some of the one’s that have been named already.


News from Mars: Evidence of Falling Snow

Mars-snow-header-640x353Ever since astronomers first looked up at Mars, they discerned features that few could accurately identify. For many years, speculations about irrigation, canals, and a Martian civilization abounded, firing people’s imaginations and fiction. It was not until more recently, with the deployment of the Viking probe, that Mars’ surface features have come to be seen for what they are.

Thanks several more probes, and the tireless work of rover such as Opptorunity and Curiosity, scientists have been able to amass evidence and get a first hand look at the surface. Nevertheless, they are still hard-pressed to explain everything that they’ve seen. And while much evidence exists that rivers and lakes once dotted the landscape, other geological features exist which don’t fit that model.

curiosity_rocksHowever, a recent report from Brown University has presented evidence that snowfall may be one answer. It has long been known that ice exists at the polar caps, but actual snowfall is a very specific meteorological feature, one that has serious implications for early Martian conditions. This is just another indication that Mars hosted an environment that was very much like Earths.

And this is not the first time that snow on Mars has been suggested. In 2008, NASA announced having detected snow falling from Martian clouds, but it was entirely vaporized before reaching the ground. The Brown researchers claim that snowfall in the past, and buildup on the surface leading to melting and runoff, could have created many of the tributary networks observed near tall mountain-ranges.

mars_atmoTo back this claim up, the team used a computer simulation from the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique called the Mars global circulation model (GCM). This model compiles evidence about the early composition of the red planet’s atmosphere to predict global circulation patterns. And since other models predict that Mars was quite cold, the program indicated the highest probability of snowfall over the densest valley systems.

Lead researcher Kat Scanlon also relied on her background in orographic studies (science for “studying mountains”) in Hawaii to arrive at this hypothesis. This includes how tall mountains lead to divergent weather patterns on either side, with warm, wet conditions one and cold, dry ones on the other. NASA’s Curiosity rover also was intrinsic, thanks to recent information that might explain why Mars no longer displays this kind of behavior.

Curiosity-Laser-BeamIn short, Curiosity determined that the planet is losing its atmosphere. It has taken detailed assays of the current atmosphere, which is almost entirely carbon dioxide and about 0.6% the pressure of Earth’s at sea-level. More notably, it has used its ability to laser-blast solid samples and analyze the resulting vapor to determine that Mars has an unusually high ratio of heavy to light isotopes — most importantly of deuterium to hydrogen.

The main explanation for this is atmospheric loss, since light isotopes will escape slightly more quickly than heavy. Over billions of years, this can lead to non-standard isotope levels the show a loss of atmosphere. One major theory that might explain this loss say that about 4.2 million years ago Mars collided with an object about the size of Pluto. An impact from this body would have caused a huge expulsion of atmosphere, followed by a slow, continued loss from then on.

All of this plays into the larger question of life on Mars. Is there, or was there, ever life? Most likely, there was, as all the elements – water, atmosphere, clay minerals – appear to have been there at one time. And while scientists might still stumble upon a Lake Vostok-like reserve of microbial life under the surface, it seems most likely that Mars most fertile days is behind it.

However, that doesn’t mean that it can’t once again host life-sustaining conditions. And with some tweaking, of the ecological engineering – aka. terraforming – variety, it could once again.


News from Mars: Oxygen-Rich Atmosphere

marsEver since the Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers began their research stint on the red planet, evidence has been pouring in that indicates that the planet once supported life. And now, by examining the compositions of Martian meteorites found on Earth and data provided by the Mars rovers, Scientists from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford have determined that the planet once boasted an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

The key determinant was the fact that the Martian surface rocks were five times richer in nickel than the meteorites found on Earth, a find which cast doubt on whether the meteorites were typical volcanic products. Whilst it is possible that the geological composition of Mars varies immensely from region to region, the team believes that it is more likely that the differences arise through a process known as subduction – in which material is recycled into the interior.

mars_oxygenThe scientists suggest that the Martian surface was oxidized very early in the history of the planet and that, through subduction, this oxygen-rich material was drawn into the shallow interior and recycled back to the surface during eruptions 4 billion years ago. The meteorites, by contrast, are much younger volcanic rocks that emerged from deeper within the planet and so were less influenced by this process.

As Professor Bernard Wood, the senior author of a study that appeared in Nature magazine, put it:

What we have shown is that both meteorites and surface volcanic rocks are consistent with similar origins in the deep interior of Mars but that the surface rocks come from a more oxygen-rich environment, probably caused by recycling of oxygen-rich materials into the interior. This result is surprising because while the meteorites are geologically young, around 180 million to 1.4 billion years old, the Spirit rover was analyzing a very old part of Mars, more than 3.7 billion years old.

In addition to evidence that Mars once had a sizable amount of surface water, in the form of rivers and lakes, this latest study demonstrates that Mars was once very much like Earth. In all likelihood, it would have been home to countless forms of bacteria, single-celled organisms, and possibly larger creatures as well. But being at the edge of our Sun’s habitable zone, it was unable to maintain the conditions for life to thrive.

terraforming-hswmarsSad news, but encouraging when it comes to the prospect of making Mars able to sustain life again. And in the coming years and decades, that’s precisely what a number of space agencies, private companies and citizens want to do. And if these plans are to succeed long term, the planet will have to be converted into something that can independently support life.

In short, the colonization of Mars requires that the planet become something akin to its old self.


Going to Mars: Now Taking Volunteers, Names and Poems

mars_lifeLooking at my site, I’ve come to notice that news concerning the Red Planet has been a bit sparse of late. Lucky for me, I had several interesting stories sitting in my inbox which were just waiting to be read, and more than a few had to do with Earth’s closest neighbor. And as we are all no doubt aware, there are quite a few of us here on Earth that believe that she is the future of planetary exploration and colonization.

But would it surprise you to know that there are plans to visit Mars that go beyond NASA’s projected mission of 2030, which will involve sending live astronauts for the first time? Take the Mars One Project as an example. Conceived by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Landorp, this project involves using existing technology and private sponsorship to fund a one-way trip to Mars and establish the first permanent settlement there by 2023, thus putting them ahead of NASA’s plans to send explorers there by almost a decade.

mars-one-brian-versteegAnnounced back in January, the project put out an open call for volunteers, and some 80,000 people have applied thus far. Thirty-five of those applicants hail from my own country (Canada), with the vast majority of them being men who are still in their 20’s. Those who apply are apparently asked some rather grueling and personal questions designed to test their aptitude and beliefs, which includes the meaning of life itself. I’m guessing more than one person answered “space exploration”!

The first things to be sent will be the modules themselves, followed shortly thereafter by the first of six teams, with each team of four arriving every two years. In time, the home base would consist of habitation modules with oxygen, water and provisions, but would expand to include solar panels. Landorp has also indicated that primary funding will come from an as-yet-unspecified “global media event” that will feature the astronauts and their preparation.

In short, it’s like a reality TV event featuring the first people who will make the seven month trip.

??????????????????????????????But for those who don’t feel like making the trip, or who would like to send something to Mars other than themselves, there’s also NASA’s MAVEN mission. As part of the “Going to Mars” campaign that is being managed by the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (CU/LASP), the MAVEN mission is a chance for the general public to send their name and a short poem to the Red Planet via NASA’s latest Mars satellite.

MAVEN – which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN – is due to be launched in November from the Florida Space Coast. Attached to the front of the orbiter will be a DVD featuring the names of everyone who applies to take part in the campaign. In addition, of those poems submitted (which is to be written in the form of a haiku), three will be selected for the mission as well.


Voting will be done by the public online, and over 1 million people have already submitted their names. The rules for the contest can be found on the mission website here. Children are allowed to participate, but must do so through a participant of 18 years of age or older, preferably a parent or guardian. Activity opened at the beginning of the month and ends July 1st, so get your names of poems in soon!

Since the campaign and contest are open to people of all ages, walks of life, and is indiscriminate of education or qualification, it’s a pretty good way for the public to participate in the ongoing exploration of space and our Red planetary neighbor. And when considered alongside the many and increasing private efforts to send people to Mars, it says about the increasingly democratic nature of space exploration.