No, We Didn't Just Teleport an Object to Space — But Here's What Did Happen

Beam me up, photon? Not so fast. While a recent development in quantum communication is exciting, we're not on the verge of the kind of teleportation depicted in "Star Trek" and other science fiction. CBS/Getty Images

Not long ago, a team of Chinese researchers were able to use quantum teleportation to transport the state of a photon from Earth to a satellite in orbit 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) away. It was a remarkable application of our understanding of quantum physics. Does this mean we're about to build "Star Trek"-style transporters?

Sadly, the answer is "no." But the news is still amazing. Quantum teleportation doesn't transport any sort of physical particle from one point to another. Even a photon, which is effectively without mass, can't be magically zapped from Earth to a satellite. But the photon's state can be copied and projected onto a second photon aboard that satellite. This turns the second photon into a clone of the one on Earth.

This photo taken on Aug. 5, 2016, shows the experimental quantum communication satellite being transferred to a launch tower at China's Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

This is easier to understand with an analogy. Imagine you have two people. One of them wears a blue shirt. The other is wearing a white shirt. The person in the white shirt gets aboard a spaceship and travels out to orbit. Then the person in the blue shirt uses quantum teleportation to transmit the essence of their own shirt to the other person. The orbiting person's shirt changes from white to blue. The state of the shirt back on Earth — but not the actual shirt itself — has been transferred across enormous distances.

In copy-and-paste parlance, we're talking Ctrl-C here, not Ctrl-X.

So these scientists were able to transform a photon in orbit into a duplicate of one here on Earth using quantum entanglement. This is something that has been done in labs on Earth for a few years now, but to accomplish this goal over such vast distances while taking into account the incredible speeds at which satellites move is a huge achievement. That said, the scientists were able to "teleport" photons 911 times with positive results, out of more than a million send attempts over 32 days — but it's a start.

As for practical applications, this experiment could help engineers design a global quantum internet. Such a communications network could use fundamental quantum principles as encryption techniques, making it virtually impossible for someone to compromise security measures. So while we won't be zapping ourselves to a discotheque across town, we could soon have a secure way to transfer information with no fear of being spied upon.