From Chandrayaan to LIGO: India’s Remarkable Scientific Journey
In the realm of scientific exploration, India is leaving its mark on both the Moon and the Sun, and now it’s aiming to unlock the deep mysteries of space by embarking on an ambitious scientific endeavor – the LIGO observatory to study gravitational waves. Located in the arid expanse of Maharashtra’s Hingoli district, this site is poised to become one of the most prominent centers for cutting-edge research in the world.
The story begins in 2016 when Rajudas Aade, a farmer, had an unexpected encounter with government officials visiting Hingoli, a district town located about 560 km east of Mumbai. These “officials” turned out to be scientists in search of land to build one of the world’s most advanced scientific laboratories. Aade might not have fully grasped the details, but he sensed that something “big” was in the works – something that could profoundly impact his life and the lives of many in the remote Marathwada region.
Today, Aade stands as one of the most fervent supporters in Hingoli of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory project, or LIGO. This initiative is a flagship scientific facility that will contribute to the global effort to explore the universe by detecting and studying gravitational waves. Aade remarks, “The project will create jobs, and Hingoli will gain worldwide recognition.”
LIGO-India will serve as the third node of the LIGO Laboratory, with existing observatories in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. Once completed, LIGO-India will become an integral part of the global network of gravitational-wave observatories, which includes Virgo in Italy and KAGRA in Japan.
Nearly a century ago, Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity demonstrated that space and time were not distinct entities but intertwined as space-time. His subsequent General Theory of Relativity, formulated in 1915, proposed that space-time was not a fixed, inert backdrop but a dynamic framework influenced by celestial bodies like planets and stars.
Einstein’s theory suggested that space-time around massive objects would be heavily distorted, causing space to curve. This curvature would give rise to the gravitational force and explain the predictable, near-circular motion of celestial bodies.
Moreover, Einstein’s theory implied that the movement of these celestial objects would ripple through space-time, generating gravitational waves – much like a boat’s movement creates ripples on the water’s surface. LIGO detects these ripples, which squeeze and stretch space-time as they pass through it.
The groundbreaking detection of gravitational waves by the two LIGO facilities in the United States in September 2015 earned the Nobel Prize in Physics two years later. However, this discovery marked just the beginning of scientific exploration involving gravitational waves.
Gravitational waves offer scientists a brand-new perspective on the universe. Until now, our understanding of the cosmos has relied on information from light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation emitted by distant planets and stars. However, a significant portion of the universe remains shrouded in darkness, devoid of electromagnetic radiation. These enigmatic regions remain hidden from human view. Gravitational waves provide an alternative means to observe these unilluminated corners of the universe.
Within a week of the public announcement of gravitational wave detection in February 2016, the Indian government committed to establishing a LIGO facility in India. Although the Hingoli site was selected in 2016 from among four potential locations, the subsequent steps required for a megascience project of this magnitude took time to complete. It wasn’t until April of this year that final government approval was granted, along with a funding allocation of Rs 2,600 crore.
Rameshwar Bankar, a physics lecturer in a college in the neighboring Buldhana district, who was formerly involved in the project’s outreach efforts to educate villagers about the observatory and its benefits, states, “We had to clarify that it was India, not NASA or the US, building this facility. We also had to dispel misconceptions about it being a manufacturing or production unit that might harm the environment. Once these misunderstandings were resolved, the local community fully embraced the project.”
The LIGO observatory is expected to commence operations by 2030 with an expected life of 30 years. The need for a third LIGO, and that too in a different continent was felt as it would enhance the chances of detection of gravitational waves and facilitate their validation.
Apart from the complexity of installing some of the most sensitive scientific equipment ever designed and built, the LIGO observatory also required to be located at a site that was free from seismic and volcanic activities.
Scientists associated with the project are optimistic about the technology spin-offs from the project.“The prototype fabrication of all key components of the LIGO vacuum system have been done in the country. The data centre — a shared pool of computing resources for data analysis from the present gravitational wave observatories — has been set up,” said a project official from RRCAT.