Osaka – For Yuya Makino, this year is not just any other year — he has been living his dream of working at the South Pole under one of the most beautiful night skies on the planet.
A member of an international scientific research team, Makino has been working since November in Antarctica, where the cold winter nights are lit up with the colors of the aurora and the stars of the Milky Way.
While Makino was laughed at when he told his university friends that he wanted to go to the South Pole, the 31-year-old held true to his word and is on a one-year mission at an observatory searching for neutrinos — nearly massless subatomic particles that zip through the cosmos.
He is also only the third Japanese person, and the first in 43 years, to become a “winterover,” a person who spends the entire winter season of about a half year at the southernmost point on Earth.
“I am thrilled,” said Makino, who hails from Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. “I want to carry out my heavy responsibilities.”
Makino was dispatched to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station after joining a team from the University of Wisconsin in the United States that has been probing neutrinos to understand their origins and properties.
His job includes maintaining and monitoring the IceCube Laboratory around the clock. The lab collects data from a huge neutrino detector buried beneath the surface of the South Pole ice.
Whenever he sees an abnormality, he walks in temperatures that can drop as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius to the lab located more than 1 kilometer away.
Ever since learning that the project was looking for new members during his master’s program at Nagoya University, Makino could not stop thinking about the South Pole. He studied English by watching TV dramas and gained experience at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, commonly known as CERN.
The South Pole only has two seasons and experiences just one sunrise and one sunset during the entire year. While the summer months see the sun up 24 hours a day, the winter days are dark for six months from late March.
The “winterovers,” currently a 42-member group including astronomers, physicists and operators of the station, have to survive by themselves, without any help from the rest of the world, between mid-February through late October.
Life on the South Pole is full of excitement. During the summer, for example, the members hold a marathon event in which some even complete the full 42 km in the freezing weather.
While Makino’s journey is coming to an end in a couple of months, he is looking for more unique experiences in the days to come.