By Dinesh C Sharma
Amidst the brouhaha over Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has come good news for academics and scientists engaged in fundamental research, in the form of government approval for setting up a gravitational wave observatory in India.
The union cabinet on 17 February gave ‘in principle’ approval to the proposal of LIGO-India to set up a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in India as part of the advanced LIGO system being established by the US-led scientific consortium which made the path breaking discovery of gravitational waves last week.
This is the first mega science project approved by the Modi government since it came to power in May 2014. The UPA government had given approval to another mega science project – Indian Neutrino Observatory – which is being constructed at Theni in Tamil Nadu. Other mega projects such as manned space mission which requires much greater funding – to the tune of Rs 12000 crore – are still pending.
With regards to LIGO project, much still depends on how much money is actually allocated to the project in the budget to be presented later this month. As per proposals prepared in 2011, the project would need a total of Rs 1260 crore over the next 15 years beginning with an allocation of Rs 650 crore in the current plan period for construction of civil infrastructure and installation of the detector.
As per the agreement between the LIGO consortium and the Department of Science and Technology, the US will supply the interferometers, along with complete design and key components, to be installed in the observatory, while India will be responsible for relocating, installing and commissioning the components for the detector. The LIGO-India detector is one of the three Advanced LIGO interferometers currently in fabrication in America.
The first task for Indian scientists would be to search for a seismically and gravitationally stable site in the country for building the observatory which will consist of 4-km long arms at right angles. Indian scientists will also be responsible for commissioning the facility, which would be operated jointly by Indian and international LIGO consortia.
At present, three gravitational-wave detectors are in operation as part of the LIGO - two at Hanford in the state of Washington and one at Livingston in Louisiana. These observatories are being upgraded to their advanced configurations (called Advanced LIGO). Now that India has approved its participation, one advanced LIGO detector from Hanford will be moved to India once the civil facility gets ready.
The detector in India will be a part of the global network of detectors along with those in the US and Virgo in Italy. Gravitational wave astronomy requires that sources that emit these waves are located and identified with utmost precision. Scientists need to know about source of each gravitational wave observed. Since the interferometer detector by itself is not a telescope as such, gravitation wave sources have to be located by a network of three or detectors with intercontinental baseline with capability of precision timing of the arrival of signals.
Some of India’s most talented scientists and fundamental research centre are leading this effort. The LIGO-India project has three lead institutions - Institute of Plasma Research (IPR) Gandhinagar, Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune and Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT), Indore. Several other centres including IITs, IISERs and centres like TIFR are part of this mega project.
While scientific goals of the mega project are very clear – dwelling deep into the universe and objects like black holes – its worldly benefits are also going to be equally important. It will place India as major player in fundamental science and open up new opportunities for many aspiring astronomers, researchers and technologists.
In addition, it will create new ways for science-industry collaboration. The very task of building a physical infrastructure involving two 4 km arms at right angles with sophisticated technology is going to be an engineering challenge. The task of making precise measurements and calculations needs expertise in an array of disciplines - lasers, optics, vibration isolation, electronics, high speed and high volume computing, data handling and network communications and engineering. Each one of them can result in scientific and industrial spinoffs.
One hopes that the ‘in principle’ clearance from the cabinet would translate into budgetary allocation required for the project, and would not get just a token grant. Given the fact that the previous two budgets of the present government have been disappointing for science and technology, let’s keep our fingers crossed.