Since he started studying physics at EPFL, Marc Jacquart was fascinated by the IceCube experiment. His dream was to – at some point of his academic career – spend 13 months at the South Pole to help with the running of the detector. This dream is becoming reality sooner than expected.
IceCube is one of the world’s biggest neutrino experiments, using 1km3of the natural occurring Antarctic ice as a clear interaction medium for the particles. Charged particles resulting from neutrino interactions produce so-called Cherenkov light, which is detected by more than 5400 photomultiplier tubes embedded in the ice. The photodetectors are attached to 86 vertical strings drilled up to 2450 m deep into the ice. The detector was completed in 2010. It needs to be monitored continuously to ensure that the data taking runs smoothly – you never know when a rare neutrino event will happen, so detector uptime is a priority.
During the summer months, about 15 people are working on various maintenance and upgrades of the detector. In the winter months this number is reduced to only two people for IceCube among a station crew of around 40 called “winterovers”. The IceCube winterovers carry the large responsibility of operating and repairing the detector, as outside help is very limited. They also cannot leave the South Pole as no plane can fly in the harsh winter conditions except for medical emergencies.
Marc applied for the position at the end of his master’s studies at EPFL – mainly to gather experience for the application process as he had already been accepted for a PhD position in Canada and didn’t think he would be selected at his first try. However, to his great delight, he has been directly selected as a winterover for 2023!
After several medical tests and three months of training in the USA, Marc travelled to the South Pole this November, and has been busy learning about his tasks on site: apart from a lot of snow shovelling to clear the outside equipement, Marc and his colleague will have to keep the experiment running, ensuring that the servers and the data acquisition software work. He will also need to regularly change the hard drives where the data is saved. Only 10% of the data collected by the IceCube detector is sent over satellites directly to “the North” (aka northern hemisphere), whereas the remaining 90% is stored locally on hard drives and shipped out during the summer months. Additionally, as everybody needs to perform multiple duties to keep the station running during the winter, Marc is also training to become a firefighter (and probably shovel some more snow)!
Even though he is worried about the pressure to repair something he is not familiar with while the whole collaboration is waiting for him, Marc is really looking forward to this experience, especially taking pictures of the night sky with auroras and meeting new people (and hopefully see some penguins while in transit through McMurdo, a research station on the antarctic coast). After the 13 months, he hopes to be able to start with his PhD on the IceCube experiment, but first he plans to take some deserved rest time and travel (“probably in New Zealand, given it is where I will arrive from Antarctica”).
We wish Marc all the best for his stay, and are looking forward to hear about his adventures at the South Pole!