The Department of Science and Technology (DST) pays tribute to Prof Michael William Feast, known particularly for his work on the cosmic distance scale using variable stars.


The honorary professor of astronomy at the University of Cape Town passed away this morning at the age of 92.


The Director-General of Science and Technology, Dr Phil Mjwara, said the former Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) will always be remembered for the role he played in promoting astronomy in South Africa.


"The work carried out at SAAO by staff and by astronomers from South African and international universities and institutions during the time of Michael's directorship of SAAO has not only led to the recognition of South Africa as a major component in world astronomy, it has shown that South Africa's geography, climate and its technical development makes it an excellent place to establish astronomical facilities," said the DG.


"It is clear that these factors were significant in convincing international partners to join with South Africa on the Southern African Large Telescope at SAAO, Sutherland. That in turn positioned South Africa to bid to host the Square Kilometre Array," the DG said.


The founding Member of the Academy of Science of South Africa was also a member of the International Astronomical Union, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and the South African Institute of Physics.


Born and raised in England, Prof. Feast came to South Africa in 1952 to take up a position at the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria.


A pioneer of multiwavelength techniques, between 1958 and 1965 he made the first comparison of optical data on young stars with radio measurements of the hydrogen gas. These led him to a new determination of the distance to the Galactic Centre and an improved understanding of Galactic rotation.


In 1974 Prof Feast moved to SAAO in Cape Town, where he served as Director from 1976 to 1992.


The first to use a 1,9 m telescope in Pretoria and later at Sutherland, Prof. Feast did pioneer work on the Magellanic Clouds, our nearest extragalactic neighbours. His measurements enabled the first estimate of the mass of the Large Magellanic Cloud, which allowed us to understand how it was formed. He also established that the history of the Small Cloud must have been quite different.


He established that luminous stars were losing mass and that this set a limit to stellar masses, which is crucial to many things from stellar evolution to the formation of planets. Prof. Feast also made major contributions to the understanding of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.


More recently, from 1997 to 2015, he combined data from the Hipparcos satellite with observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and from various SAAO telescopes at Sutherland to investigate the structure of the Milky Way and to derive a new calibration of the extragalactic distance scale.


This also led to stimulating and fruitful exchanges of scientific and technical knowledge with the SAAO staff.  Prof. Feast took a strong personal interest in all research done at SAAO and read every paper written by a staff member before it was submitted for publication.


Passionate about astronomy, the professor continued to do research up until a few months before his death.  He is survived by his wife Connie, three children and eight grandchildren.


Issued by the Department of Science and Technology.