Class of 2017 Alumnus Working on James Webb Space Telescope

This is a color composite image released by Dr. Janice Lee’s PHANGS team, from their Early Release Science program looking at M74, using MIRI and NIRCam (the Near Infrared Camera). Credit to Janice and her team.
Mike Engesser MIRI Team
Mike Engesser (top right) and the entire MIRI development and commissioning team, in front of the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Mike in MOC
Mike in the MOC on an overnight shift during JWST commissioning.
Mike Engesser, Class of 2017
Mike Engesser, Class of 2017

The first images from NASA’s new $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope have captivated the world, offering the deepest and sharpest images of the cosmos ever captured and allowing us to see farther into the universe, in both time and distance, than ever before. And a recent graduate of SUNY Oneonta helped to make it happen.

Mike Engesser, Class of 2017, is a staff scientist working on the MIRI instrument of the telescope at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. Seated at a desk behind seven giant computer screens “just like the movies,” Engesser – who double-majored in physics and computer science at SUNY Oneonta– takes data received from the telescope, calibrates it and analyzes it so that it’s ready for science operations. His team discovered a supernova, or exploding star, that had previously never been seen, and Engesser received credit as author.

“It’s all a little bit surreal,” he said. “I grew up learning about the Hubble Telescope and hearing about Webb, and then learning about Webb as an astronomy student with Dr. Josh Nollenberg at Oneonta. We knew Webb was coming because it has been in the works since before I was born. So it’s surreal to actually be a part of the project now and be around all the people who have been with it since its inception.”

Mike and his sister
Mike and his sister, Kerianne, attended SUNY Oneonta at the same time and were both on the cross country and track and field teams. Kerianne graduated in 2018.
Mike in MOC
Mike in the Mission Operations Center on an overnight shift during James Webb Space Telescope Commissioning.

Engesser joined the Space Telescope Science Institute and Webb project three years ago after earning a master’s degree in astronomy from San Diego State University. Knowing that the launch of the James Webb Telescope was coming very soon, he and his team have spent the past few years preparing for this moment.

supernova candidate
This is the discovery image for the supernova candidate Mike's team published. The top right shows an archival Hubble image, and the bottom left shows a JWST image with a new bright source. The bottom right shows one subtracted from the other, revealing the supernova candidate on its own. Image credit to Gabriel Brammer, U. Copenhagen.

It’s a dream come true for a guy who spent his childhood in Medford, NY, looking up at the stars, learning about space with his dad, and watching the 1998 science fiction hit "Armageddon" over and over again, "as embarrassing as that is to admit working in the astronomy world,” he said with a laugh.

“From my youngest memories, I was always interested in space,” Engesser said. “And this is such a fascinating time to be working in this field.”

At SUNY Oneonta, Engesser honed his skills alongside Associate Professor Joshua Nollenberg, giving observatory shows at College Camp and inside the college’s planetarium. He was also a member of the track and field team and worked as lead desktop consultant with Information Technology Services (ITS).

“I had a rich college experience,” Engesser said. “I loved doing the observatory shows at College Camp and had great experiences with track, going to nationals and getting close with my coaches, who always stressed that academics were first.”

MRI Power On
Mike (center right) and other MIRI team members after commanding MIRI to turn on for the first time from the Mission Operations Center (MOC)

What sticks out the most, he said, is the mentoring he received from Dr. Nollenberg.

“He gave me invaluable advice about how to do research, how to be a part of the industry, and how to leverage my skills in computer science in the field of astronomy,” Engesser said. “That really helped me get where I am today.”

Engesser is excited to see what the future holds.

“There’s so much to do with Webb at the moment, and it’s all very exciting,” he said. “I’ll be starting to write papers, maybe looking to get my PhD. Webb has opened up a whole new realm of transient supernova science, and I’m ecstatic to be part of it.”

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