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India's giant Neutrino Observatory gets the nod to experiment with the little neutral ones

India's giant Neutrino Observatory

India's giant Neutrino Observatory


In a landmark move for particle physics research, the Government of India has given its approval for the establishment of the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) which aims to build a world class underground laboratory, primarily to study neutrinos. A mega scale collaborative project, set to address big unanswered questions in particle physics, TIFR Mumbai is the host institute for the INO.

With about 300 neutrinos in one cubic cm of our universe, they are the second most abundant particle after photons. Their origin lies in the natural environment that existed when the universe was created, in addition to the core of the sun, other stars, and cosmic rays that interact with the Earth's atmosphere. We are surrounded by these tiny neutral particles and do not even realize that trillions of them harmlessly pass through our body every second. As they interact very weakly with anything in their path they are even able to pass through the Earth. Neutrinos initially thought to be massless, were in 1998, found to have a tiny mass, millions of times less than an electron, which has made neutrino physics a hotly pursued area of study.

Although found in abundance, studying neutrinos is a challenging task that requires very large detectors. The underground facility of the INO in the Bodi West Hills, will house a massive 50,000 ton magnetized neutrino detector, the largest of its kind in the world, surpassing the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) in use at CERN currently. This giant magnetized detector will be tucked away under a 1000m radius of rock cover under a mountain, well shielded from other cosmic ray particles that would otherwise interfere with signals obtained from neutrinos. Consisting of alternate layers of particle detectors called Resistive plate Chambers and iron plates, the design and nature of this detector will allow scientists to study properties of neutrinos, especially mass hierarchy, providing scientists the opportunity to pick the correct theory behind the standard model of particle physics. The INO is also set to address matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe. 21 research institutes, universities and IIT's across the country are working towards developing this one of a kind detector.

Amongst the scientific community this also heralds a great training opportunity for not only physicists but also engineers, and offers students and interns a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience cutting edge research in building this world class facility. 'INO will contribute to the creation of highly skilled manpower for carrying out research in particle physics, astro-particle physics and nuclear physics and develop a strong industrial base in detector technology', says Professor Naba Mondal, INO Project Director, and Senior Professor at TIFR. He strongly believes that this project will allow students to participate in building sophisticated particle detectors and electronics data acquisition systems from scratch, and hopes that future generations can continue to contribute to this exciting field of research.

Neutrino research is not new to India. In the 1960's the Kolar Gold Field neutrino experiment, one of the world's earliest underground neutrino projects, was built deep inside the Kolar Gold Mine. Professor BV Sreekantan, former Director of TIFR, was instrumental is setting up this underground laboratory and together with professor MGK Menon, also a former director of TIFR, and a group of other scientists, conducted various experiments in the Kolar Gold Fields. It was here that Professor Mondal gained great expertise in this area of physics as a PhD student, while pursuing his research in particle physics, in the deep dark recesses of the Earth. In an engaging interview, Professor Mondal shares his early experiences and the build up to the INO (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ts_5qx14ktY).

Given the magnitude of this project, the INO team has taken great efforts to educate the masses and create an awareness of what neutrinos are and why it is critical to study them in this manner, so deep under the Earth's surface. The INO website (http://www.ino.tifr.res.in/outreach/english/about.html#) provides a repository of open access information for anyone who wants to know more about this project. Recent developments and exciting news from the INO can be found on their facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ino.neutrino), that also hosts many informative videos that bring alive the projected experimental research on neutrinos.

The underground facility will develop into a full-fledged science laboratory for other studies like looking for evidence of Dark Matter and in subjects like biology and geology, all of which will exploit the special conditions existing deep underground. At an estimated cost of Rs 1500 crores, jointly funded by the DAE and DST with infrastructural support from the Govt of Tamil Nadu, the future of neutrino physics is set to be very exciting in the next several decades.