Quantum technologies bring great opportunities for the space sector. For instance, quantum technologies can be used in communications, allowing secure communications through quantum key distribution (QKD). They can also be used for navigation and positioning through quantum sensors that ensure higher precision and accuracy. And Earth Observation (EO) can also benefit from quantum technologies, with quantum sensors improving EO capabilities and changes’ detection. Moreover, quantum technologies can be used in space exploration, enabling, for instance, better measurements of the properties of celestial bodies. The role of quantum technologies, notably quantum computing, in areas such as propulsion systems, debris detection and tracking, manufacturing, among others, has also been highlighted.

In the European Union (EU), and as part of the European High Performance Computing Joint Undertaking, a pan-European supercomputing infrastructure is under deployment, comprising a set of super-computers in several EU countries – with one of them having been inaugurated in Portugal in September 2023. The infrastructure aims to accelerate the creation of new knowledge and solutions to global societal challenges, such as on weather forecasting, transportation and others. The Communication Shaping Europe’s Digital Future already referred to the building and deployment of cutting-edge joint digital capacities in the area of quantum computing, whilst the 2030 Digital Compass highlighted the deployment of a “world leading, federated supercomputing and quantum computing data infrastructure”, with a view that, by 2025, “Europe will have its first computer with quantum acceleration paving the way for Europe to be at the cutting edge of quantum capabilities by 2030”. The Digital Compass expressly gives, as an example of the impact of the quantum revolution, the better monitoring of resources through quantum gravity sensors fitted to space-borne satellites. In November 2023, the European Commission (EC) opened access to EU supercomputers to speed up artificial intelligence (AI) development.

Developing and deploying an ultra-secure quantum communication infrastructure spanning the whole EU is also one of the goals indicated in the 2030 Digital Compass, a point also mentioned in the Communication Shaping Europe’s Digital Future and in the Path to the Digital Decade. In this scope, the European Quantum Communication Infrastructure (EuroQCI) Initiative was put forward in 2019, when EU Member States signed the EuroQCI Declaration. The EuroQCI, which is being developed together with the European Space Agency (ESA), will safeguard sensitive data and critical infrastructures by integrating quantum-based systems into existing communication infrastructures. The EuroQCI will be composed of a terrestrial and of a space segment (with the first prototype QKD satellite Eagle1 aimed to be launched in late 2024), and will be an integral part of IRIS2, the new EU space-based secure communication system established under the Union Secure Connectivity Programme for 2023-2027.

The EC is also preparing the ground for the deployment of a future EU Earth observation mission making use of quantum gravimetry. As a first step of this mission, the EC is working on the development of EU technologies and components for a space quantum gravimeter or gradiometer.

The synergies between space and AI are also acknowledged, for instance, in the EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence, which notes that space shall be “more systematically taken into account in relevant EU policies and initiatives, such as on quantum technologies, or artificial intelligence”.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has also been quite active in this field, with its Agenda 2025 expressly referring to quantum as one of the areas where ESA will launch new initiatives. ESA Quantum Technology Cross Cutting Initiative (QT-CCI) coordinates ESA activities in quantum technologies, whilst specific programmes exist benefiting quantum development, such as the programme for technology developments in the field of satellite communications (ScyLight), which covers quantum communication. A set of quantum initiatives have also been put forward, such as sending a quantum-enabled probe to Jupiter and flying a quantum clock to the International Space Station.

In turn, in October 2023, the European Union Agency for the Space Program (EUSPA) announced Cassini Challenges, a competition that tasks innovators with developing cutting-edge solutions to solve today’s societal issues using satellite data/services from Galileo and Copernicus. One of the three thematic challenges is the Emerging Technologies Challenge: innovators must develop disruptive solutions combining EU space data with deep technologies such as quantum technologies (quantum computing, sensing, simulation, encryption, among others).

Several countries are also investing in quantum technologies.

For instance, France approved its National Quantum Strategy in 2021, aimed to support and develop quantum technologies, with Germany having also launched a Quantum Technology Plan in 2023.

The UK  published, in March 2023, its National Quantum Strategy, which aims to support UK priority technologies and sectors, such as the space sector. The Strategy points out that considerable work is required to understand the drivers and technological challenges within critical sectors of the economy, including space.

The US National Quantum Initiative aims to accelerate quantum research and development, with a set of documents having been issued in this scope, such as the 2022 Report on Bringing Quantum Sensors to Fruition, which acknowledges the role of quantum in space activities. A National Security Memorandum outlining the US plan to address the risks posed by quantum computers to America’s cybersecurity was also issued in 2022, with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) having approved quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms.

China has also singled out quantum (together with Space and artificial intelligence) as one of its top technology priorities, having enshrined quantum technology into its latest national economic blueprint, the 14th Five Year Plan, and allocated substantial amounts for quantum research and development. China has already demonstrated the use of quantum communication between satellites and ground stations through the Micius satellite, launched in 2016, which was the first satellite dedicated entirely to quantum experiments.

Around the world, many new QKD missions are also being scheduled, most of them on cubesats which offer reduced mission costs.

Despite the opportunities and benefits brought by quantum technologies, their use also brings legal challenges, including when it comes to privacy, cybersecurity, exports (given their dual-use nature), liability, fairness and bias, intellectual property, among others. Development and use of quantum technologies by space actors shall thus take into consideration such challenges to ensure legal compliance and risk mitigation.