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Work at Neutrino Detector IceCube in Antarctica

Physicist of TU Dort­mund University back after one year in the eternal ice

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A man in a thick red jacket next to a sign in the snow that says "Geographic South Pole" © Johannes Werthebach​/​TU Dort­mund
TU Dort­mund University physicist Johannes Werthebach at the geographic South Pole.

In October 2017 Johannes Werthebach (33) traveled from TU Dort­mund University to the IceCube neutrino observatory in Antarctica and stayed for one year at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station. Now the astrophysicist and doctoral student of the Faculty of Physics is back at the university.

The largest neutrino observatory in the world is located just a few hundred meters from the geographical South Pole. Astrophysicist Johannes Werthebach, who is working on his doctorate under Professor Wolfgang Rhode, worked there for a whole year. His task: to ensure that the neutrino detector functions without any problems.

Although neutrinos are the second most common elementary particles, they can only be detected with huge underground detectors. The almost three kilometers thick, crystal-clear ice at the South Pole is perfectly suited as “detector material”. The neutrinos can only be detected indirectly: When a neutrino collides with another particle, charged particles such as electrons or muons are formed, which in turn cause the bluish Cherenkov light, which is then recorded by photosensors. All signals from the underground sensors converge in an above-ground laboratory, where they are processed and recorded. Werthebach’s tasks in the laboratory included the search for and correction of errors that could occur during communication with the sensors in the ice. “Sometimes this just meant restarting the computers when the software had frozen,” said Werthebach.

Average temperatures as low as minus 70°C

In 2017, the TU Dort­mund University graduate had applied for the position in Antarctica advertised annually by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After eight weeks of training in the USA, he arrived at the research station at the South Pole on November 1, 2017, when the summer was just beginning: on average a comparatively mild minus 20°C and a sun that does not set for months. During the summer months, the research station is very busy, with up to 200 people staying there – scientists, but also other staff such as kitchen staff and technical personnel. Winter begins at the end of February: Then it gets cold on average between minus 60°C and minus 70°C, and the sun does not rise for months. At the South Pole a small team of only about 40 persons remained, among them also Johannes Werthebach.

In his daily routine, Werthebach not only assisted in the maintenance of the neutrino detector, but also of the research station. These included “tasks that you also have to do at home,” said Werthebach: “For example, cleaning, rinsing, vacuuming – but also shoveling snow.” Despite his varied work, he had plenty of free time. He spent his free time reading, doing sports – the research station has a fitness room, a gym and a climbing room – and watching films in the evening: “It doesn't get boring when you know how to keep busy.” The young researcher is also a hobby photographer and was not deterred by the cold to photograph the clear starry sky or the southern lights. “That was impressive,” he said. “And when I wore special clothing, it was no problem to lie in the snow outside and observe the sky.” He has recorded numerous impressions on his blog www.joatpole.com .

Christmas celebrated twice

There was also social life at the station. For example, in Antarctica, Christmas was celebrated twice: on the 24th of December and exactly half a year later on the 24th of June. “Then it was dark and there was a Christmas atmosphere,” said Werthebach. “We festively decorated the station and baked cookies.” He even had a few days’ vacation at the South Pole. He spent them in McMurdo, the largest research station in Antarctica, which is located on an island on the coast. “There are mountains there, you can hike and see animals, for example seals or Antarctic skuas – and there is also a café,” said Werthebach.

In November 2018 Werthebach’s year at the South Pole ended. Before he returned to Germany, he spent a few weeks in New Zealand. What was the first thing he noticed after leaving the icy continent? “Smells in the air – it doesn’t smell like anything at the South Pole,” said Werthebach. “And the air humidity, because the air at the South Pole is extremely dry.” His first excursion took him to the botanical garden to see flowers for the first time in a year. And to the market, where he bought fresh fruit – because at the South Pole there was usually only canned fruit.

The TU Dort­mund University researcher returned to Germany for Christmas and is now continuing his dissertation. He is doing his doctorate on muons that are formed when particles hit the atmosphere. So far, nobody has analyzed the spectrum of muons using IceCube data from several years. Johannes Werthebach is the first to take up this challenge.

TU Dort­mund University, together with other German institutes, is part of the in­ter­na­tio­nal IceCube cooperation. All in all, more than 300 scientists and scholars from 12 countries are involved here under U.S. direction.

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Location & approach

The campus of TU Dort­mund University is located close to interstate junction Dort­mund West, where the Sauerlandlinie A 45 (Frankfurt-Dort­mund) crosses the Ruhrschnellweg B 1 / A 40. The best interstate exit to take from A 45 is "Dort­mund-Eichlinghofen" (closer to Campus Süd), and from B 1 / A 40 "Dort­mund-Dorstfeld" (closer to Campus Nord). Signs for the university are located at both exits. Also, there is a new exit before you pass over the B 1-bridge leading into Dort­mund.

To get from Campus Nord to Campus Süd by car, there is the connection via Vogelpothsweg/Baroper Straße. We recommend you leave your car on one of the parking lots at Campus Nord and use the H-Bahn (suspended monorail system), which conveniently connects the two campuses.

TU Dort­mund University has its own train station ("Dort­mund Universität"). From there, suburban trains (S-Bahn) leave for Dort­mund main station ("Dort­mund Hauptbahnhof") and Düsseldorf main station via the "Düsseldorf Airport Train Station" (take S-Bahn number 1, which leaves every 20 or 30 minutes). The university is easily reached from Bochum, Essen, Mülheim an der Ruhr and Duisburg.

You can also take the bus or subway train from Dort­mund city to the university: From Dort­mund main station, you can take any train bound for the Station "Stadtgarten", usually lines U41, U45, U 47 and U49. At "Stadtgarten" you switch trains and get on line U42 towards "Hombruch". Look out for the Station "An der Palmweide". From the bus stop just across the road, busses bound for TU Dort­mund University leave every ten minutes (445, 447 and 462). Another option is to take the subway routes U41, U45, U47 and U49 from Dort­mund main station to the stop "Dort­mund Kampstraße". From there, take U43 or U44 to the stop "Dort­mund Wittener Straße". Switch to bus line 447 and get off at "Dort­mund Universität S".

Dort­mund Airport offers flights to several destinations in Central Europe. There are regular connections to Katowice, Kraków, London and Munich. For the approximately 20km-trip from Dort­mund Airport to TU Dort­mund University, you can use a shuttle bus to the railway Station "Bahnhof Holzwickede", from which trains depart to Dort­mund main station (please visit Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr for more information). Normally, the fastest way is to catch a taxi at Dort­mund Airport.

The H-Bahn is one of the hallmarks of TU Dort­mund University. There are two stations on Campus Nord. One ("Dort­mund Universität S") is directly located at the suburban train stop, which connects the university directly with the city of Dort­mund and the rest of the Ruhr Area. Also from this station, there are connections to the "Technologiepark" and (via Campus Süd) Eichlinghofen. The other station is located at the dining hall at Campus Nord and offers a direct connection to Campus Süd every five minutes.