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Walter Alexander Feibelman (1925–2004)

Published onDec 01, 2005
Walter Alexander Feibelman (1925–2004)

Walter Alexander Feibelman, 79, an astronomer who discovered the E-ring of Saturn, died of a heart attack 19 November 2004 at his home at Riderwood Village in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Walter was born 30 October 1925 in Berlin, Germany to Bernard and Dora Feibelman. He came to the United States with his parents in 1941. They were some of the last German Jews to flee Nazi Germany. Years later, he reported his experiences in an account contributed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

As a youth, he worked at a cleaning shop and as a soda jerk before taking a course in tool and die making. He worked at the Abbey Photo Corp. in New York and in a model-making firm, where he constructed models of aircraft for use in identification courses by the Army Air Forces.

After high school, he attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology and received his BS degree in 1956. Until 1969, he was a research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. While working as an assistant research professor in physics and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh in 1967, he examined a photo of Saturn taken a year earlier at the university's Allegheny Observatory. The E-ring -- unlike the bright main rings, A, B, C, D and F -- is faint and not easily spotted. He paired his observation with calculations and announced his discovery, which remained unconfirmed until the Pioneer 11 flyby in 1979.

Walter joined the Optical Astronomy Division of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt in 1969, and worked there until 2002, when he became an emeritus astronomer at NASA.

He became associated with the International Ultraviolet Explorer project, and worked on developing detectors for the orbiting observatory's spectrograph. The project turned out to be one of NASA's most successful observatories, operating from 1978 to 1996.

In his scientific career, he published more than 200 refereed articles, mainly on hot stars and planetary nebulae. He also wrote papers in the fields of photography, spectroscopy, physics, telescopes, and railroading.

His awards included a special achievement award from NASA in 1986, a Presidential Certificate of Recognition on National Immigrants Day in 1987, and a NASA Certificate of Outstanding Performance in 1990.

Walter was fascinated with steam locomotives. He documented in photographs the end of the steam era in western Pennsylvania, and published an illustrated study of those giant locomotives in a book, "Rails to Pittsburgh", in 1979. From the New York Central Railroad, he purchased the shop blueprints of its famous "Niagara" locomotive. He scaled those plans and machined more than 1,100 individual parts from brass, which he assembled over several years into a 31-inch model of a Niagara that sat on O-gauge track.

He loved classical music, and made an extensive collection of videos of famous performances, which he showed in well-attended weekly gatherings at Riderwood. He presented his 200th program to listeners the night before he died. He was preceded in death by his wife, Lola King Feibelman. Survivors include a sister, Miriam Feibelman of Jerusalem.

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