Voyager 1 and 2, the historic spacecraft that showed us the outer planets of our solar system in unprecedented detail, are now heading toward the outer boundary of our solar system. But in their younger days, they sent us the best pictures we have to date of Jupiter, Saturn and their moons. These pictures have inspired Rory Bentley since he was a child. Today, Rory is a physics undergraduate student at LSU. His favorite moon is Iapetus, a “two-faced” or two-tone moon orbiting Saturn. Why? Because it’s mysterious, perhaps even the strangest moon in the solar system.
“I like the mysterious parts of the galaxy.” – Rory Bentley
“The Voyager images of Iapetus had this certain mystery to them,” Rory said at a public lecture he gave in early August at the Highland Road Park Observatory (HRPO) about the Voyager missions. “They were eye-catching.” This was Rory’s second public lecture at HRPO. He has been attending lectures at the observatory himself for many years, and he said he felt like it was his turn to “give back.”
“I really enjoy giving the lectures,” Rory said. He has felt his confidence as a scientist and a science communicator growing as he gives these lectures and engages in other K-12 outreach opportunities with the Society of Physics Students at LSU. Rory is often in charge of setting up and demonstrating the telescopes when the society visits local schools and fairs.
Rory is not new to planetary research. After he started at LSU in the fall of 2014 as a physics major, he started working in Suniti Karunatillake’s Planetary Science Laboratory in the LSU Department of Geology & Geophysics. Karunatillake, an assistant professor in the department, studies questions related to Martian geoscience such as how soils on Mars contain water trapped inside other compounds.
Working in Karunatillake’s lab, Rory helped describe a feature on Mars before NASA even discussed it. Observing images from the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Rory observed a notable feature. It was a “mound that looked like an overdone chocolate chip cookie,” near Elysium, a volcanic region on Mars. Rory was helping Karunatillake look for evidence of water on the surface of Mars. As an undergraduate student, he also helped one of Karunatillake’s graduate students look through images from the Mars Curiosity Rover for a type of glacier meltwater rock known as a dropstone.
But Rory grew increasingly interested in astrophysics. Mystery pulled him away from Mars and further into deep space.
“I want to do research on stars,” Rory said. “Even though I was doing space research in the geology department looking at Mars, planetary science is very different from astrophysics. A lot of current research and NASA missions are focusing on Mars, which is great, but I'm more interested in exploring stellar astrophysics.”
Today, Rory is working with Robert Hynes, associate professor in the LSU Department of Physics & Astronomy. In Hynes’ lab, Rory is looking through data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory for evidence of binaries or pairs of stars and “exotic objects,” or denser objects like black holes and neutron stars. He is looking for cases where these objects are revolving around one another so closely that matter is pulled off of the star toward the denser object.
Rory hopes to be an astrophysicist.