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India’s neutrino observatory project delayed again

The INO will study atmospheric neutrinos produced by cosmic rays in the earth’s atmosphere

mumbai Updated: Mar 25, 2017 00:17 IST
Snehal Fernandes
neutrino
The neutrino prototype magnet.(India-based neutrino obsevatory)

When China starts getting initial reports from its underground neutrino laboratory in 2022, India’s Rs1,500-crore proposed India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) at Tamil Nadu — planned much earlier than the Chinese facility — will just be up and running.

The country’s biggest basic science facility in the Bodi West Hills of Theni district, to study atmospheric neutrinos, faces a delay of at least two years after the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal earlier this week directed the INO to seek fresh environmental clearance. It also requires a nod from the National Board of Wildlife since the Mathikettan Shola National Park in Kerala’s Idukki district is about 4.9km away from the proposed project site.

After the previous environment clearance was granted, the first detector was to start operating in 2020. “The tribunal’s order is a setback,” said professor Vivek Datar, project director of INO and physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. “It is disheartening and unfortunate that an important project is getting delayed. A one-and-a-half to two year’s delay is crucial since it will affect the speed of getting results.”

The INO will study atmospheric neutrinos produced by cosmic rays in the earth’s atmosphere. Neutrinos are subatomic particles produced by the decay of radioactive elements. They are the fundamental particles that make up the universe and are key to understanding the evolution of the universe, energy production mechanisms in the Sun and other stars.

An experiment in the Kolar Gold Fields, Karnataka discovered atmospheric neutrinos in 1965. Though India conceived setting up the INO in 2006, Japan (T2K), China (JUNO), and US (NOVA) have raced ahead in beginning the operations in their underground neutrino laboratories.

Professor Takaaki Kajita — who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with professor Arthur McDonald in 2015 for their work on neutrinos — said the INO is a unique experiment, and the technology used is quite different from other projects.

“We expect INO will produce data that is both important and unique. Further delay in the project is not good and we want to see the data from INO as soon as possible,” Kajita told HT over an email interview. “INO is extremely important for the international neutrino community since it will provide an important evaluation of results obtained by various other experiments.”

The first of the three detectors is likely to be functional only in 2022; the other two in 2024. It will take about six years (2030) of data collection to say something about the mass hierarchy of neutrinos with reasonable confidence.

“A measurement of the ordering of the masses by INO would certainly be significant, and would be competitive if construction could be started soon,” McDonald told HT via email. “This will provide a valuable contribution to our knowledge of physics at a very fundamental level, and enable young Indian scientists to be educated in performing research at the cutting edge of science,” he added.

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