A new quantum technique could help create planet-sized telescopes

Let that sink in.
Brad Bergan
A telescope at night (left), and a wild light-speed head trip (right).1, 2

The future of astronomy goes far beyond the James Webb Space Telescope.

For example, it's theoretically possible to use quantum computers as a means for constructing colossal, planet-sized telescopes, according to a study shared to a preprint server and initially reported by New Scientist.

And, if we could make it work, a planetary telescope would peer much farther into the big black abyssal depths of space, and image the distant universe at untold levels of resolution.

Such an endeavor could "revolutionize astronomical imaging," according to the study.

Pooling astronomical data with quantum techniques

In astronomy, arranging several telescopes to function unanimously is what's called an interferometer — and these essentially enable observations of the universe with a gigantic aperture, overcoming "physical limitations including loss" and the noise of the cosmos by employing quantum communications methods.

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The study suggests processing each photon individually as it slams into the telescope array from a universe away — which sounds like insanely meticulous work until you consider the powers of a quantum memory storage device. Specifically, the phenomenon of quantum entanglement would allow two or more discrete telescopes to share information with one another in an instant.

A first step to next-gen astronomy using quantum techniques

Of course, this would make a mess in the database, leaving an image that few could decipher — but a self-correcting quantum computer could see order in chaos, resolving errors without need of numerical simulations — like our comparably primitive computers.

It's a wild, inspiring idea, but while planet-sized quantum telescopes could work in theory, the problem of putting it into practice remains, like an unspeakably giant wall of unprecedented challenges. "There are many more challenges that need to be addressed for a planet-sized device, but this is a good first step," said lead author of the study Zixin Huang of Macquarie University, in Australia, according to the New Scientist report.

Abstract:

The development of high-resolution, large-baseline optical interferometers would revolutionize astronomical imaging. However, classical techniques are hindered by physical limitations including loss, noise, and the fact that the received light is generally quantum in nature. We show how to overcome these issues using quantum communication techniques. We present a general framework for using quantum error correction codes for protecting and imaging starlight received at distant telescope sites. In our scheme, the quantum state of light is coherently captured into a non-radiative atomic state via Stimulated Raman Adiabatic Passage, which is then imprinted into a quantum error correction code. The code protects the signal during subsequent potentially noisy operations necessary to extract the image parameters. We show that even a small quantum error correction code can offer significant protection against noise. For large codes, we find noise thresholds below which the information can be preserved. Our scheme represents an application for near-term quantum devices that can increase imaging resolution beyond what is feasible using classical techniques.
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