Cabinet approves India-based Neutrino Observatory

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office gave the go ahead for the India-based Neutrino Observatory, an underground physics experiment that will study particles called atmospheric neutrinos. The project is based out of Theni in Tamil Nadu, and the Tamil Nadu State Government is providing the infrastructural support. The observatory is expected to cost Rs 1,500 crore and to be completed by 2020. With the PMO’s green signal, the consortium of institutions will now receive the bulk of funds with which to start excavating the underground cavern.

The INO is jointly supported by the Department of Atomic Energy and the Department of Science and Technology. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, is the host institution. Additionally, an Inter-Institutional Center for High Energy Physics has also been set up in Madurai to lead the R&D for the observatory. The approval confirmation came from Prof. Naba K Mondal of the TIFR and spokesperson for the project.

Upon completion, the INO is being envisaged as the return to India of world-class experimental neutrino physics. From the 1960s until the 1990s, a neutrino experiment at the Kolar Gold Field Mines held that bragging right. In the years since the mines were closed, however, it became evident that the experiment they’d housed could have made some important contributions to understanding the masses of the three types of neutrinos, an important question today.

The PMO’s go-ahead also includes the approval to construct a 50,000-ton electromagnet – the world’s largest upon completion – that will be the heart of the stationary Iron Calorimeter detector. It will comprise “alternate layers of particle detectors called Resistive Plate Chambers (RPCs) and iron plates. The iron plates will be magnetized with 1.4 Tesla magnetic field. Over 30,000 RPCs will be used in this detector. A total of over 3.7 million channels of electronics will carry the signals from these RPCs to be finally stored in the computer,” according to the press release accompanying the announcement.

Some members of the INO at the site of the project, in the Bodi West Hills. Prof. Mondal is second from left.
Some members of the INO at the site of the project, in the Bodi West Hills. Prof. Mondal is second from left. Credit:

Because neutrinos interact so rarely with matter, an experiment to study them must disallow particulate interactions of any other kind in its kind. This is why the INO will be situated beneath 2.2 km of rock acting as a shield.

A similar neutrino experiment is simultaneously coming up in China, called the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory. JUNO has two important similarities with INO: both will attempt to answer questions surrounding the subject of neutrino masses and both expect to start operating by 2020. The supplementarity means the experiments could corroborate each others’ results. The complementarity means it will be a challenge for each experiment to produce unique results, although it is too early to say how important such a consideration is now.

At the same time, JUNO has an important edge: It is already an international collaboration of participating institutions while India is still soliciting partnerships.

Finally, because of its scale and the level of funding it will receive, the INO will eventually house a full-fledged scientific institution of sorts, with research in the other sciences as well. Even as an underground neutrino experiment, the observatory has potential to host others which might require a similar environment to study: a neutrinoless doube beta decay experiment to study the nature of neutrinos and a dark-matter detector, to name two.

As Sekhar Basu, the Director of BARC, noted: “Development of detector technologies for various particle physics experiments and their varied applications including societal applications in areas like medical imaging is an important aspect of the project.” Not to forget the development of highly skilled technical manpower.

The full list of the INO-ICAL collaborators is available on the last page of the press release (which I’ve uploaded to Scribd). Thanks to Prof. Mondal for informing us about the development. Good luck, INO team!