China is poised to steal a march on India in yet another field. While New Delhi is sitting on approvals to build a particle physics observatory, Beijing is racing ahead with a similar project.

The India-based Neutrino Observatory aims to study the properties of the fundamental particles of neutrinos in Earth’s atmosphere. Slated to come up in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district by 2020, the project is estimated to cost over Rs 1,300 crore. But the INO’s main detector – which requires the digging of a massive underground cavern 1 kilometre under a hill and an access tunnel to it – has been held up because it awaits clearance from the prime minister’s office.

A slew of other clearances, with the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Environment and Forests, took more than a year to come. The final word from the Cabinet has been awaited for a year.

Naba K Mondal, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and spokesperson for the India-based Neutrino Observatory project, said, “Once we receive clearance from the Prime Minister’s Office, we can start work on the main project, digging the tunnel and cavern and setting up the detector.”

Timely science

The INO project gained urgency when, on March 24 this year, China announced the construction of a neutrino observatory in its Jiangmen province with similar goals. Like the INO, the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory is expected to be completed by 2020. Work has already begun on it. The more the Indian project is delayed, the easier it will be for the Jiangmen observatory to establish primacy in atmospheric neutrinos research.

Mondal said it is not enough to do good science – “It has be done on time.”

China’s successful management of its other neutrino experiment, the Daya Bay experiment, is likely to make it easier for the Jiangmen observatory to solicit funding from physics research institutes around the world. The INO has been unsuccessful on this front so far.

“The Jiangmen observatory is a government-approved project in China, unlike the INO, which is not yet approved,” Mondal said. “They have started work on the research and development of the detector.”