BEIJING - China launched the world's first quantum satellite Tuesday, state media reported, in an effort to harness the power of particle physics to build an unbreakable system of encrypted communications.
The launch took place at 1:40 am in the southwestern Gobi Desert, the official Xinhua news service said, and comes as the US, Japan and others also seek to develop applications for the burgeoning technology.
Beijing has poured enormous resources into the race, one of several cutting edge projects the world's second largest economy has pursued as part of its massive national investment in advanced scientific research on everything from asteroid mining to gene manipulation.
The satellite -- nicknamed Micius after a 5th century BC Chinese scientist -- will be used in experiments intended to prove the viability of quantum technology to communicate over long distances.
Unlike traditional secure communication methods, the system uses photons to send the encryption keys necessary to decode information.
The data contained in the bursts of subatomic particles is impossible to intercept: any attempts at eavesdropping will cause them to self-destruct, Xinhua said.
While scientists have shown the trick can be used to transmit messages over relatively short distances, technical hurdles have kept long range communication out of reach.
The satellite will attempt to send secure messages between Beijing and the Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang in the country's far west.
Success will require the satellite be precisely oriented to its earth-bound receiving stations, Xinhua said.
"It will be like tossing a coin from a plane at 100,000 metres above the sea level exactly into the slot of a rotating piggy bank," it quoted the project's chief commander, Wang Jianyu, as saying.
Developing the new technology is a major goal for Beijing, which included it in its most recent five-year plan, released in March.
"The newly-launched satellite marks a transition in China's role -- from a follower in classic information technology (IT) development to one of the leaders guiding future IT achievements," Xinhua quoted Pan Jianwei, the satellite project's chief scientist.
China "can expect a global network of quantum communications to be set up around 2030", he said.