A space mission demonstrating technologies for future secure telecommunication systems has won £345,000 of funding from the UK Space Agency (UKSA).

The University of Strathclyde is a partner in ROKS (Responsive Operations for Key Services), which will develop a novel quantum laser payload, using Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) and supported by artificial intelligence.

To date, the work has developed the mission concept, proved the technology basis for highly miniaturised space-ready quantum systems and AI toolbox, and secured opportunities with multinational finance, telecommunication and data providers for cybersecurity.

ROKS is a consortium led by Glasgow-based aerospace company Craft Prospect and also features Fraunhofer Research UK and the University of Bristol. The Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics (CAP) is hosted at Strathclyde.

The funding is a share of more than £8 million from the UK Space Agency’s National Space Innovation Programme (NSIP), which is the first UK fund dedicated to supporting the space sector’s development of innovations.

The discovery phase of the project will progress the flight payload and ground test systems to Critical Design Review (CDR), before a final build and delivery to demonstrate in-orbit operation by 2022. The work has already developed the technology basis for miniaturised space-ready QKD systems and produced and tested an Engineering Model of the payload and ground systems.

Strathclyde’s role in the NSIP project is to provide modelling and analysis support of Satellite QKD, to contribute to the definition and review of system requirements and to assist in the optical system design by Fraunhofer CAP for the payload telescope. 

Dr Daniel Oi, Senior Lecturer in Strathclyde’s Department of Physics, is Scientific Lead for ROKS. He said: “This project is a direct outgrowth of research initiated at Strathclyde and is now being taken in a commercial direction by Craft Prospect, who we have been working with as partners for several years on this.

“It’s just one aspect of the range of space quantum technologies which Strathclyde is involved in. There’s a real synergy and strong link between us and our partners, while Strathclyde has made strategic investment in quantum activities through areas like the Institute of Photonics and the hosting of Fraunhofer CAP. There are also further missions being planned.”

Steve Greenland, Managing Director of Craft Prospect Ltd, said: “Craft Prospect is excited to be working with world class partners in UK quantum technology and optics to progress our ROKS mission, accessing major market opportunities in space autonomy and cybersecurity. Support from the UK Space Agency underpinned by the Scottish Investment Bank is accelerating our Smart Secure Space roadmap to demonstrate how emerging quantum technologies and artificial intelligence will impact the space sector in the coming years.”

UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “We want the UK to be a world leader in space technology which is why we are supporting our most ambitious innovators who are developing first of a kind technologies to help solve some of our greatest challenges.

“From slashing carbon emissions to protecting the UK’s critical services from harmful cyber-attacks, today’s funding will unshackle our most entrepreneurial space scientists so that they can transfer their revolutionary ideas into world class products and services, while helping to boost the UK economy.”

UKSA previously funded QUARC, a Strathclyde-led National Space Technology Programme in which Bristol and Craft Prospect were also partners. QUARC technology development is further supported by the Quantum Technology Hub in Quantum Communications that is planning a scientific CubeSat QKD mission during Phase 2 of the National Quantum Technology Programme.

As well as developing the CubeSat QKD concept and architecture in the QUARC programme and subsequent projects, Strathclyde is developing a toolkit for the modelling and analysis of satellite QKD systems and their optimisation. This will be used to help design the next generation of space quantum communication systems.

This is in conjunction with two Innovate UK projects, AirQKD, led by BT, and ViSatQT, led by Airbus, in which Strathclyde is involved in the system architecture design, modelling, and analysis, as well as working on development of industrialisation and the supply chain. Strathclyde has worked closely with the Scottish Centre of Excellence for Satellite Applications and the Satellite Applications Catapult on quantum space systems development and commercialisation.

The University of Strathclyde is the only academic institution that has been a partner in all four EPSRC funded Quantum Technology Hubs in both phases of funding. The Hubs are in: Sensing and Timing; Quantum Enhanced Imaging; Quantum Computing and Simulation, and Quantum Communications Technologies.