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This article appeared in the spring print issue of Popular Science, but has also been published online.
For Popular Science:
In 2017, physicists beamed photons from Tibet to a satellite passing more than 300 miles overhead. These particles jumping through space evoked wide-eyed sci-fi fantasies back on Earth: Could Star Trek transporters be far behind? Sorry for the buzzkill, but this real-world trick, called quantum teleportation, probably won’t ever send your body from one place to another. It’s essentially a super-secure data transfer, which is tough to do with the jumble of code that makes a human.
Photons and teensy bits of atoms are the most complex bodies we can send over long distances in a flash. Each particle of the same type—photon, neutron, electron—is largely the same as every other member of its subatomic species.
Configurations known as quantum states distinguish them. Two photons spinning clockwise, for example, are identical. You can’t make one zip elsewhere with no lag time (sorry, that’s magic), but you can create its duplicate in another spot. Not so useful for moving people, but valuable for instantaneous, secure communication.