Augmentation of Future Quantum Key Distribution Networks with CubeSat Systems

Lead Research Organisation: University of Strathclyde
Department Name: Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering


CubeSats (nanosatellites of mass <10kg, with dimensions 10-40 cm in length) offer a cost-effective and rapidly deployed opportunity to provide both proof-of-concept to a wide market and technology raising. In some instances they are also part of the final service delivery, for example, in the case of Planet, who augment larger satellites with CubeSats for responsive Earth observation. This feasibility study seeks to determine the extent to which the momentum and agility of the CubeSat marketplace, and the progress made in overall performance, can be applied and aligned to support and capitalise on the emergence of space-based Quantum Key Distribution, harnessing the developments already underway within the UK in payload systems. QKD offers a highly secure method for key distribution that is critical to modern data systems security, from financial transactions to military communications. The work will inform mission architecture, interface specification, system testing and development roadmaps, and further provide a systems-view across stakeholders. The approach will identify opportunities to accelerate and augment the technology or service readiness of space-based QKD using CubeSats.

Planned Impact

NewSpace has already helped to grow the UK space industry and export market, drawing investment from venture capital in the US and elsewhere through 'silicon valley' modelled companies such as Spire and Kepler, driven by providing niche data products or services. A typical satellite bus can sell for 200-500 kGBP depending upon the complexity, with each constellation requiring 10-100s of satellites. To date, from the clean rooms of Clyde Space Ltd based in Glasgow,
Spire report to be building a satellite a week, with 20 launched to date, and more ready and waiting for launch. Their decisions to base and partner with the UK helps to grow a highly skilled local workforce, both within and throughout the UK supply chain.

Presenting a solution or part-solution for space-based QKD using the now recognised CubeSat bus, presents venture with a viable entry point for investment, and harnesses the ever increasing performance capabilities of these small space
systems. Identifying and developing niche applications for these systems will help to create or sustain employment both downstream and upstream. It also can facilitate an earlier launch opportunity due to the standardised interfaces (PODs) allowing CubeSats to fly on almost all Low Earth Orbit launches with minimal reconfiguration.

Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, is emerging as a centre of excellence for NewSpace and CubeSats in the UK, complementing existing excellence centered around Surrey in small satellites. A number of companies, including Spire, Clyde Space, Alba Orbital, and Bright Ascension all offer solutions into this market. The growth of NewSpace has allowed companies such as Clyde Space Ltd to grow from <10 employees to near 100 in less than five years.


10 25 50
Description It has been shown that space-based quantum-key distribution is possible from a nano-satellite (CubeSat) platform is possible, to a level that is deemed useful for a commercial and/or security-based application. Quantum communication is an inevitable evolution in terms of secure communication, and the results of this work demonstrate the feasibility of the technology on board low-cost satellite systems.
Exploitation Route The findings from this work will be used as a direct input for a satellite mission due to be developed over the coming years.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Security and Diplomacy