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Boost for India’s hopes to host gravity wave detector

Posted on behalf of KS Jayaraman

India looks increasingly likely to be the site of a new gravitational wave detector.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, operates two 4-km long baseline interferometer detectors in the United States: one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana.

To enhance physicists’ ability to pinpoint gravitational waves, the LIGO lab had been considering building a third detector at a site in the southern hemisphere. Last year, it got the approval of its funding agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF), to locate the detector at Gingin in Western Australia.

“The project, however, failed to materialize, as we were told that the Australian government will not be able to fund the project,” Stanley Whitcomb, LIGO lab chief scientist now tells Nature. The project required $140 million to build the infrastructure, and another $60 million running cost over 10 years. “So we have been talking for several months with Indian colleagues about the possibility of relocating the detector in India instead of Australia,” says Whitcomb, currently in India with his team to assess the level of local scientific support available, and to gauge any practical difficulties in establishing the project.

The news has brought cheers to IndIGO, the consortium of researchers from 11 institutions coordinating gravitational wave research in India. But there is a catch: LIGO has to know by 31 March 2012 if India can commit to the project by identifying the site, getting assured funds to build the infrastructure to house the detector, and raising the manpower to operate the facility.

Whitcomb says that an NSF panel heard the LIGO-India proposal a week ago, and felt “the science case for LIGO-India is compelling enough to move forward”, but added that issues with regard to funding, site selection and technical expertise must be resolved before making a deeper commitment.

“We at LIGO lab are very interested in moving the detector to India, but a number of areas need to be addressed and the final decision is that of NSF,” he says. “It will take four to five months.”

Bala Iyer, chair of IndIGO council, says that much needs to be done before the NSF reviews the case again after February 2012 to consider the final approval. “Fortunately, this development comes at a time when India’s planning commission is in the process of allocating funds for possible mega science projects for the 5- year plan starting April 2012,” he told Nature.


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