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May 28, 2021

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An interview with a Mechanical Engineer in Quantum – Cassandra Mercury, Craft Prospect

Cassandra Mercury has had a varied career that’s seen her move from sunny Los Angeles, where she was born and raised, to Edinburgh to pursue a role engineering quantum technologies for space. Cassandra studied at University of Southern California for her Bachelors degree and, subsequently, a Masters in Astronautical Engineering. Upon graduating, she took up the role of Mechanical Engineer in the Entry, Descent and Landing Group of the Mechanical Engineering Division of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she worked on a variety of projects, including the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity Rover. From there she moved to work as a Test and Development Engineer at a high-tech startup, Hyperloop One, working on Hyperloop transportation which relies upon levitation. Cassandra is now the Space Quantum Technology Lead for space engineering company Craft Prospect. We caught up with her to find out more about her career path to date, what she’s working on at the moment and the advice she’d give to others hoping to pursue a career in STEM.

You have a background in mechanical engineering so what encouraged you to take the leap out of that field to pursue a career in the field of quantum technologies? 

New challenges. I thrive when I’m pushed just beyond my comfort zone, I enjoy the feeling of uncertainty and not quite knowing what is going on, it means every day is a school day! That’s why I took this role. Also, what was really exciting to me was that Craft Prospect doesn’t work alone, they have a lot of partners, especially in academia. The role allows me to work with academics in quantum to try and bridge the gap, to take some of the amazing innovations that are happening in academia and try to bring them into industry, designing systems that are built to certain specifications. What’s great about this is that I have to learn about why things work the way they do before I can design systems, and so it really does challenge me and keeps me on my toes.

What encouraged you to leave sunny Los Angeles to move to Scotland? Why did Scotland feel like the right place for you to move to a career in quantum? 

While I was at university I decided to study abroad at the University of Edinburgh for a semester and I just fell in love with the city then. It’s small enough that you can walk anywhere but it always has things going on: there are lots of festivals; it has huge green spaces in the middle of the city; and it has great access and links to other places. The flexibility to move between city and nature is amazing. I knew once I’d studied here that I wanted to return as an adult. After I’d been at Hyperloop One for a while I basically thought ‘why not now?’, so, I moved to Edinburgh and then that’s when I found my current company, Craft Prospect.

Can you tell me a little bit more about Craft Prospect? What does your role as Space Quantum Technology Lead entail and is there such a thing as a typical day at work for you? 

Craft Prospect is a space engineering company that spans three different areas: there’s the mission systems area which is basically helping to develop satellites for other companies; there’s what we call ‘responsive operations’ which involves putting AI onto satellites, making them smarter and more secure; and then there’s quantum technologies, which is the area I lead on. At the minute, the big focus for our work in quantum technologies is on quantum key distribution (QKD) and the enabling technologies around that.

As far as a typical day goes, I don’t really have one! None of my days are the same, everything is so outcome based depending on the projects I am working on, meaning that every day is new and interesting. I can be in meetings discussing projects, doing CAD designs for the systems, or in the lab physically working on things, it just depends what is needed by each project at different points in time.

What are you currently working on and what will these technologies eventually enable?  

My main work is around Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) which is a method that utilises the laws of quantum physics to distribute the cryptographic keys used to encrypt and decrypt data. The main advantage of QKD is that it can’t be intercepted and hacked by a quantum computer, unlike some of the current techniques used for the encryption of communications. Essentially QKD will future proof encryption and enable secure communications even when quantum computers arrive.

More specifically, I am working on putting systems, which use QKD, into space in order to overcome distance limitations of fibre optic networks that use QKD. The problem is that, over long distances, quantum signals in fibre optic cables gradually become too weak or have too many errors. To overcome this, you can do QKD through free space by having terminals up on top of buildings, however, the atmosphere introduces loss into your signal and so again there are distance limitations with these set-ups too. Essentially what this means is that, in order for a global quantum communications network to be established, we must do QKD in space. We’re working to put QKD systems on low Earth orbit satellites and having them communicate with mobile ground stations which can go wherever needed. This will mean that QKD could be done anywhere in the world, without any geographical limitations. This will be useful for sending sensitive information such as medical records, corporate research and development secrets, private messages, defence communications and so on. 

At the minute I’m working on the ROKS (Responsive Operations for Key Services) mission which is going to demonstrate some of our responsive operations systems and also our QKD system in space. I am currently doing a lot of design work for this project, making sure that the technologies will survive the mechanical stress they undergo to get out into space. Our aim is to do our first demonstration mission for QKD on a CubeSat [a miniature satellite constructed of small cubic modules] by autumn of 2022! I’m also working on a project with some universities and institutes in Canada which will see our QKD system fly on their satellite (through the QEYSSat mission). And I’m working with other academics who are looking to put their quantum magnetometers out into space. We are exploring how the technologies need to be developed so that they can be put on a CubeSat and sent into space.

What would you say you enjoy most about your current role? 

I think what I enjoy most is working with academics and turning ideas into physical things that we can actually put into space. The academics we work with are all absolutely brilliant and have been working on QKD for years, it’s great to now be working with them to further develop these technologies into things that we can send into space. Working with academics to do this requires a mix of communication, technical understanding, and design, and I really enjoy that mix.

What transferrable skills have you obtained throughout your career and what skills do you think are most important for people working in the field? 

I think I’ve developed the ability to take my knowledge from one area and apply it to new and unfamiliar areas. In each of the roles I’ve held, the technologies I’ve worked on have been deployed in different situations, whether that be in hard vacuums (at NASA), low-pressure environments (Hyperloop One), or in low Earth orbits (at Craft Prospect). Being able to draw upon prior knowledge and experience and apply it to new situations is key and has been really important for me. 

Another crucial thing for working in this field is asking questions. In all of my roles I’ve been able to use transferrable skills like use of CAD software or my understanding of the principles of physics, but, for the most part the areas I was working in were new to me and so I found striving to always go and ask questions in order to gain a deeper understanding of things has been super important.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to pursue a career in STEM, particularly in quantum and space fields? 

I’d say you’ve got to have that drive to learn new things and want to discover things. You don’t need a formal field-specific qualification or formal projects from university to be able to demonstrate that you have that, you could also demonstrate it through unique projects of your own that you’ve done just out of interest. You can be taught specific skills but desire for learning cannot be taught and you really must have that in a career in this field. 

I think it’s important to realise that there is no such thing as a standard career path. Some people stay in the same role or company for their entire career, others move around and do different things and both are fine. Being open to opportunities and looking for the things that excite you is probably the most important thing you can do. I think when you pursue the things that interest you, whether that’s one specific area or a variety of things, your work is much more rewarding.

I also think it’s really important to reach out to people in your field who are doing the work that you’re interested in, just to find out what they’re doing and how it’s going. Most people are super friendly, and they’ll be happy to chat and answer your questions. If there’s work that interests you and you see people who are doing it, sending a friendly message to say you’d love to hear more can be really helpful.

Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come? 

QKD technologies are really exciting for me. This area has absolutely exploded in its development and I think it’s absolutely fascinating, I’m excited to watch as it develops. I’m looking forward to seeing global networks being built and having those secure communications anywhere around the world. I find that, in conversations with people, I am always hearing new applications for QKD technologies that I’d never thought of and that’s so exciting. Such big progress being rolled out in such little time, I’m interested to see how that continues. 

What are your hopes for the future?  

The thing I look forward to the most is further developing relationships with academia in order to get more quantum technologies into space. So right now, obviously we’re very focused on getting QKD technologies into space, but that’s going to happen in the nearer term. We’re already developing the relationships to get other types of quantum technology into space and I think this is going to be a really key area for quantum technologies, people will want to put their technologies into space to see what they can enable and what other benefits can be gained. I hope we are able to develop the processes for putting quantum technologies into space and standardise them so that it’s a much easier to do. I almost look forward to the time when putting quantum technologies into space is boring, when it’s just such an easy thing it happens in a smooth, easy manner so that we can reap the benefits more easily!