Cyberwars: NSA Building Quantum Computer

D-Wave's 128-qubit quantum processorAs documents that illustrate the NSA’s clandestine behavior continue to be leaked, the extents to which the agency has been going to gain supremacy over cyberspace are becoming ever more clear. Thanks to a new series of documents released by Snowden, it now seems that these efforts included two programs who’s purpose was to create a ““useful quantum computer” that would be capable of breaking all known forms of classical encryption.

According to the documents, which were published by The Washington Post earlier this month, there are at least two programs that deal with quantum computers and their use in breaking classical encryption — “Penetrating Hard Targets” and “Owning the Net.” The first program is funded to the tune of $79.7 million and includes efforts to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” that can:

sustain and enhance research operations at NSA/CSS Washington locations, including the Laboratory for Physical Sciences facility in College Park, MD.

nsa_aerialThe second program, Owning the Net, deals with developing new methods of intercepting communications, including the use of quantum computers to break encryption. Given the fact that quanutm machinery is considered the next great leap in computer science, offering unprecedented speed and the ability to conduct operations at many times the efficiency of normal computers, this should not come as a surprise.

Such a computer would give the NSA unprecedented access to encrypted files and communications, enadling them to break any protective cypher, access anyone’s data with ease, and mount cyber attacks with impunity. But a working model would also vital for defensive purposes. Much in the same way that the Cold War involved ongoing escalation between nuclear armament production, cybersecurity wars are also subject to constant one-upmanship.

quantum-computers-The-Next-GenerationIn short, if China, Russia, or some other potentially hostile power were to obtain a quantum computer before the US, all of its encrypted information would be laid bare. Under the circumstances, and given their mandate to protect the US’s infrastructure, data and people from harm, the NSA would much rather they come into possesion of one first. Hence why so much attention is dedicated to the issue, since whoever builds the worlds first quantum computer will enjoy full-court dominance for a time.

The mathematical, cryptographical, and quantum mechanical communities have long known that quantum computing should be able to crack classical encryption very easily. To crack RSA, the world’s prevailing cryptosystem, you need to be able to factor prime numbers — a task that is very difficult with a normal, classical-physics CPU, but might be very easy for a quantum computer. But of course, the emphasis is still very much on the word might, as no one has built a fully functioning multi-qubit quantum computer yet.

quantum-entanglement1As for when that might be, no one can say for sure. But the smart money is apparently anticipating one soon, since researchers are getting to the point where coherence on a single qubit-level is becoming feasible, allowing them to move on to the trickier subject of stringing multiple fully-entangled qubits together, as well as the necessary error checking/fault tolerance measures that go along with multi-qubit setups.

But from what it’s published so far, the Laboratory for Physical Sciences – which is carrying out the NSA’s quantum computing work under contract – doesn’t seem to be leading the pack in terms of building a quantum computer. In this respect, it’s IBM with its superconducting waveguide-cavity qubits that appears to be closer to realizing a quantum computer, with other major IT firms and their own supcomputer models not far behind.

hackers_securityDespite what this recent set of leaks demonstrates then, the public should take comfort in knowing that the NSA is not ahead of the rest of the industry. In reality, something like a working quantum computer would be so hugely significant that it would be impossible for the NSA to develop it internally and keep it a secret. And by the time the NSA does have a working quantum computer to intercept all of our encrypted data, they won’t be the only ones, which would ensure they lacked dominance in this field.

So really, thess latest leaks ought to not worry people too much, and instead should put the NSAs ongoing struggle to control cyberspace in perspective. One might go so far as to say that the NSA is trying to remain relevant in an age where they are becoming increasingly outmatched. With billions of terabytes traversing the globe on any given day and trillions of devices and sensors creating a “second skin” of information over the globe, no one organization is capable of controlling or monitoring it all.

So to those in the habit of dredging up 1984 every time they hear about the latest NSA and domestic surveillance scandal, I say: Suck on it, Big Brother!


Space Junk: The of Bane of the Space Age

janitorOneSpace, or at least the portion which sits in low orbit around our planet, is quite literally a junkyard. Currently, it is estimated that there over 500,000 bits of debris floating above our world, which takes the form of satellite and rocket components, as well as broken down satellites that ceased functioning long ago. Naturally, these objects pose hazards for space flight, and collisions between objects have been known to occur.

In fact, just three years ago, a U.S. and Russian satellite collided over Siberia, generating an estimated 1,000 pieces of new debris at least 4 inches across. In addition, the International Space Station has to periodically adjust its orbit just to get out of the way of traffic. And since exploration and commercial travel to and from the Moon is expected within the near future, something needs to be done to take the garbage out.

cubesatAnd that’s where CleanSpace One comes into play, a janitor satellite that the Swiss Space Center in the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) began developing last year. Specifically designed to target derelict satellites that threaten our communications and information networks. The satellite has a price tag of 11 million dollars, and is expected to be deployed in three to five years.

Naturally, the task before it is a tricky one. In order to do a “launch and seize” operation, the satellite would have to get onto the same orbital plane as its target, latch onto it at high speed, and then de-orbit it. To do this, EPFL is working on an “ultra-compact motor” to get the janitor onto the right track, as well as a grasping mechanism to grab hold of the space junk once its aligned and within distance of it.

And then there’s the efficiency factor. As it stands, a vessel like the CleanSpace One is a one-shot deal design. Once it’s latched onto space junk, it essentially re-enters the atmosphere with it and drops it below, meaning it is unable to gather up multiple pieces of debris and dispose of them discreetly. As such, it would take even a large fleet of janitor satellites quite a long time before they made a dent in all the space junk.

Luckily, there’s another option that has been on the table even longer than the janitor satellite. The reasoning behind this concept is, if you don’t the means to de-orbit all that space junk, just hit it with some photons! When you consider all the debris in orbit and the havoc it plays with the space lanes, not to mention how its only getting worse, a “targeted” approach may just be what the doctor ordered.

space_laserBack in 2011, James Mason, a NASA contractor at the Universities Space Research Association in Moffett Field, Calif., and his colleagues presented a paper claiming that an anti-collision laser system which would target space debris was feasible. Although they acknowledged that more study was required before it could be implemented, they also claimed that lab simulations suggested that the idea would work in practice.

The idea would center around the deployment of a medium-powered laser of 5 to 10 kilowatts to essentially nudge debris off a potential collision course. Rather than eradicate the junk that clutters up the space lanes, this system would be responsible for anticipated crashes and preventing them by ensuring space junk didn’t cross paths with the ISS, satellites, or orbiting shuttles.

space_debrisAnd even that doesn’t represent the entirety of proposed solutions. In addition to janitor satellites and laser, the Russian Space Agency has also been batting around an idea for an orbital pod that would sweep away satellite debris. Details remain sketchy and little information has been released to the public, but the RSA has claimed that they hope to have such a craft ready to go no later than 2023.

Yes, it seems we as a species are entering into phase two of the Space Age. And in this segment of things, orbital pods, offworld habitations, and exploration into the outer Solar System may very well be the shape of things to come. As such, we’re going to need clearer skies above our heads if anything hopes to make it off of Earth without a series fender bender!


Sources: news.cnet,

Powered by the Sun: The Future of Solar Energy

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31Researchers continue to work steadily to make the dream of abundant solar energy a reality. And in recent years, a number of ideas and projects have begun to bear fruit. Earlier this year, their was the announcement of a new kind of “peel and stick” solar panel which was quite impressive. Little did I know, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Since that time, I have come across four very interesting stories that talk about the future of solar power, and I feel the need to share them all! But, not wanting to fill your page with a massive post, I’ve decided to break them down and do a week long segment dedicated to emerging solar technology and its wicked-cool applications. So welcome to the first installment of Powered By The Sun!

spaceX_solararrayThe first story comes to us by way of SpaceX, Deep Space Industries, and other commercial space agencies that are looking to make space-based solar power (SBSP) a reality. For those not familiar with the concept, this involves placing a solar farm in orbit that would then harvest energy from the sun and then beam the resulting electricity back to Earth using microwave- or laser-based wireless power transmission.

Originally described by Isaac Asimov in his short story “Reason”, the concept of an actual space-based solar array was first adopted by NASA in 1974. Since that time, they have been investigating the concept alongside the US Department of Energy as a solution to the problem of meeting Earth’s energy demands, and the cost of establishing a reliable network of arrays here on Earth.

Constructing large arrays on the surface is a prohibitively expensive and inefficient way of gathering power, due largely to weather patterns, seasons, and the day-night cycle which would interfere with reliable solar collection. What’s more, the sunniest parts of the world are quite far from the major centers of demand – i.e. Western Europe, North America, India and East Asia – and at the present time, transmitting energy over that long a distance is virtually impossible.

NASA "Suntower" concept
NASA “Suntower” concept

Compared to that, an orbiting installation like the SBSP would have numerous advantages. Orbiting outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, it would be able to receive about 30% more power from the Sun, would be operational for almost 24 hours per day, and if placed directly above the equator, it wouldn’t be affected by the seasons either. But the biggest benefit of all would be the ability to beam the power directly to whoever needed it.

But of course, cost remains an issue, which is the only reason why NASA hasn’t undertaken to do this already. Over the years, many concepts have been considered over at NASA and other space agencies. But due to the high cost of putting anything in orbit, moving up all the materials required to build a large scale installation was simply not cost effective.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424However, that is all set to change. Companies like SpaceX, who have already taken part in commercial space flight (such as the first commercial resupply to the ISS in May of 2012, picture above) are working on finding ways to lower the cost of putting materials and supplies into orbit. Currently, it costs about $20,000 to place a kilogram (2.2lbs) into geostationary orbit (GSO), and about half that for low-Earth orbit (LEO). But SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, has said that he wants to bring the price down to $500 per pound, at which point, things become much more feasible.

And when that happens, there will be no shortage of clients looking to put an SBSP array into orbit. In the wake of the Fukushima accident, the Japanese government announced plans to launch a two-kilometer-wide 1-gigawatt SBSP plant into space. The Russian Space Agency already has a a working 100-kilowatt SBSP prototype, but has not yet announced a launch date. And China, the Earth’s fastest-growing consumer of electricity, plans to put a 100kW SBSP into Low-Earth Orbit by 2025.

space-based-solarpowerMost notably, however, is John Mankins, the CTO of Deep Space Industries and a 25-year NASA vet, who has produced an updated report on the viability of SBSP. His conclusion, in short, is that it should be possible to build a small-scale, pilot solar farm dubbed SPS-ALPHA for $5 billion and a large-scale, multi-kilometer wide power plant for $20 billion. NASA’s funding for SPS-ALPHA dried up last year, but presumably Mankins’ work continues at Deep Space Industries.

Cost and the long-term hazards of having an array in space remain, but considering its long-term importance and the shot in the arm space exploration has received in recent years – i.e. the Curiosity Rover, the proposed L2 Moon outpost, manned missions to Mars by 2030 – we could be looking at the full-scale construction of orbital power plants sometime early in the next decade.

And it won’t be a moment too soon! Considering Earth’s growing population, its escalating impact on the surface, the limits of many proposed alternative fuels, and the fact that we are nowhere near to resolving the problem of Climate Change, space-based solar power may be just what the doctor ordered!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next installment in the Powered By The Sun series!