India to Join Hunt for Gravity Waves

Long arm of the LIGO. The detector facility at Hanford.

Long arm of the LIGO. The detector facility at Hanford.

California Institute of Technology

NEW DELHI—India intends to host a key facility in an international effort to detect gravitational waves, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced on Monday at the Indian Science Congress in Jammu.

Operating since 2002, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) consists of sophisticated optical interferometers located 3000 kilometers apart, in Hanford, Washington, and near Livingston, Louisiana. The instruments are intended to measure barely perceptible changes in the lengths of 4-kilometer-long arms at each facility resulting from ripples in space-time from passing gravitational waves. Albert Einstein postulated the waves’ existence as a consequence of the general theory of relativity. LIGO has so far failed to detect the waves, as have two European detectors, GEO600 and Virgo.

To hike the sensitivity, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has bankrolled a $205 million upgrade of LIGO’s instrumentation. Nearly complete, the Advanced LIGO enhancements should make the detectors 10 times more sensitive to gravitational waves, backers say. In August 2012, NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board, authorized NSF officials to approve at their discretion the plan to place one of the newly jazzed up interferometers and related instrumentation in India. That move would likely come only after the Indian government officially approves India's role in the project. A global array would be able to pinpoint the cosmic source of any detected gravitational waves, over a much broader region of the sky.

Project scientists welcome Singh’s endorsement. “We in LIGO do welcome the PM's mention of the LIGO-India gravitational wave project,” says Stanley Whitcomb, LIGO chief scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Whitcomb notes that the Indian government has indicated that final approval may take a few more months. 

Indian scientists say the government is likely to commit about $201 million over 15 years to its facility, dubbed IndIGO. “LIGO will bring some of the best international and Indian astrophysicists to work on Indian soil in a very exciting area of research,” says Ratan Kumar Sinha, a nuclear engineer and chair of India’s Atomic Energy Commission. Some Indian researchers have questioned whether the money will be well spent; others worry that it will be hard to find a suitably quiet location for the facility in a country with such a high population density. Astrophysicist Bala Iyer, chair of the IndIGO Consortium Council, dismisses those concerns. “The community is very happy,” he says. Ongoing survey work, he says, has already identified several possible locations for IndIGO.

*Correction, 6 February, 5:55 p.m.: The story has been corrected to clarify that NSF has not yet approved the plan in question and that LIGO searches for gravitational waves, not gravity waves.

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