India Is About to Get A Fancy New Observatory
published during a full moon.
02/23/2016

As the science world buzzes with news of gravitational waves, the Indian government green-lit the construction of its very own detector, a move that will bolster a blooming branch of astrophysics.

India

Credit: R. Hurt / Caltech-JPL

If the news of gravitational waves this month makes your mortal brain melt, you’re not alone. The historic detection of ripples in the fabric of space-time confirmed a few mind-dissolving things, among them that Einstein had been right all along about that relativity business — and that black holes exist. Now the Indian Cabinet has approved construction of a new detector that help will pin down gravitational waves for closer inspection.

It all cascaded when a scientist noticed that a squiggle had appeared on his computer screen detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). After rigorously checking the data, scientists confirmed the first observation of gravitational waves, which Albert Einstein predicted a hundred years ago as part of his general theory of relativity.

But observatories that detect wrinkles in space-time can only pinpoint the waves’ origins in bits of sky. Currently a pair of twin LIGO detectors reside in Hanford, Washington, and almost two thousands miles away in Livingston, Louisiana. They operate in unison, their sensitive mirrors cocked, listening for the faintest of signals. So faint, in fact, that the measurement was about a thousandth the diameter of a proton, the executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, told the New Yorker.

The identical interferometers are placed far apart so that local interference — like trucks, storms, and other bobbles — can be discerned and ruled out. (A legitimate gravitational wave would trigger both.) India’s observatory, the third interferometer in the world, will also be an exact copy and is projected to open in 2023.

Along with a detector in Germany, the LIGO group will also be working with observatories in Italy and Japan, which are being upgraded. Almost everything that we know about space stems from raking light. So if the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which consists of more than 1,000 scientists, can narrow where the waves come from, telescopes that harvest different frequencies will complement how we piece together the universe’s history — one minuscule squiggle at a time.