PEACOQ is a fancy NASA device that can count 1.5 billion photons per second

Although we, average Joes, give little importance and credit to photons, each and every one of them could be hugely important to the future of our species provided we learn how to use them properly. For example, they could prove essential for the development of quantum computing.

We all consider our modern computers to be very advanced, but quantum computers could eclipse them all, once and in sufficient numbers, when it comes to how quickly they can complete their tasks. Even more so when they can be networked to communicate with each other. But the networking of quantum computers has proven to be a very tough nut to crack.

You all know how today’s traditional computers (yes, we call them that) work when they talk to each other. They store and use data as binary code with ones and zeros and pass it to other computers either physically or wirelessly. Any data they use can be copied so that it can be transferred, but also to make that magical thing we call computer memory possible.

Quantum computers differ significantly in that copying data for storage or transmission is not possible. This is because such machines do not encode data as ones and zeros, but as fundamental particles, including photons, through superposition and entanglement.

Photo: Enhanced performance optical quantum counting array

Furthermore, unlike 1- and 0-coded information, fundamental particles decompose after just a few kilometers when transmitted over physical means such as fiber optics. A quantum computer network in the traditional sense is therefore out of the question.

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How then can we build a network of super-fast computers to further our goals?

NASA thinks it has the answer, and that answer is PEACOQ. This is short for Performance-Enhanced Array for Counting Optical Quanta and is essentially nothing more than a dime-sized (13 micron diameter) detector printed on a silicon wafer. It contains 32 superconducting niobium nitride nanowires, each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair, and connectors that fan out to form something not unlike the peacock’s plumage.

Despite its tiny size, the detector is quite a powerful device. It is able to measure single photons “with an accuracy of fractions of a nanosecond”. More specifically, it should be able to detect every photon it hits within 100 trillionths of a second, up to 1.5 billion of them per second — and that’s like counting individual water droplets in a fire hose spray to determine the NASA analogy to use.

Photo: Enhanced performance optical quantum counting array

According to NASA and Caltech, the key players behind the project, this is something that has never been achieved before and could open the doors to a dedicated quantum computing network that could communicate over distances of thousands of kilometers.

The idea of ​​such a network is quite simple. A series of orbiting satellites would act as relays for computer data. They would create pairs of entangled photons that would be beamed to computers on the ground, which may be separated by large distances. Normally, the entangled photons and the data they contain would be affected by the large distances. However, aided by the PEACOQ’s ability to count photons individually, but also to convert each one of them into data-filled electrical impulses, the computers should be able to interpret them in no time.

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However, there could be some logistical issues in using the detector, as it needs to be maintained in order for it to work as designed (more specifically, for the nanowires to remain in a superconducting state and thus be able to detect photons). in locations with temperatures of minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 272 degrees Celsius).

The technology isn’t ready for real-world testing just yet, but the people involved say lab tests are planned in the near future. But the hardware that inspired PEACOQ will fly very soon.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s called Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) and will be deployed this October alongside the asteroid-hunting Psyche spacecraft. Although it won’t be used to send back quantum data, DSOC aims to show if and how Earth can communicate with space using high-bandwidth optical hardware.

The system is equipped with a near-infrared laser transmitter that sends photons to a receiver here on Earth. Most importantly, it’s also equipped with photon-counting hardware, in this case a camera, used to receive a laser beam from our planet’s surface.

However, don’t expect any of the ideas mentioned here to become a reality any time soon. As happens with something this revolutionary, we’re probably years away from a working, scalable device like this. However, we will be keeping an eye on things and will let you know if further progress is made in this area.