Stunned Scientists Detect Suspected Hidden Chamber Within Great Pyramid of Giza

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Stunned Scientists Detect Suspected Hidden Chamber Within Great Pyramid of Giza

Khufu’s Pyramid 3D cut aerial view. The fuzzy white dots represent the location of the newly discovered void. (Image: ScanPyramids Mission)

Though they were constructed nearly 5,000 years ago, the Great Pyramids of Egypt are still packed with secrets. Using a technique that leverages the power of cosmic rays, scientists have confirmed the presence of a large empty space within Khufu’s pyramid—a void that’s signaling the presence of a possible hidden chamber.

It’s tempting to think that all the great archaeological discoveries from ancient Egypt have already been made, but new research published today inNature shows there’s still plenty for us to uncover.

An investigation into the internal structure of Khufu’s pyramid—the largest pyramid in Giza—has revealed the presence of a large and inaccessible “void” within the structure. The researchers who led the study, Mehdi Tayoubi from the HIP Institute in France and Kunihiro Morishima from Nagoya University in Japan, won’t go so far as to say the cavity is a hidden chamber, but they’re reasonably convinced the internal feature is a deliberate architectural feature of the pyramid. As to what’s inside is anyone’s guess, but the presence of artifacts and funeral items are not out of the question, according to Egyptologists.

Cross section of the Great Pyramid showing the location of the void. This interpretation shows it in a horizontal position, but the researchers say it could also be inclined, tipped downward toward the North Face Corridor. Could an undiscovered tunnel connect the two hidden features? (Image: ScanPyramids Mission)

The discovery was made possible through the unlikely intersection of archaeology and particle physics. By making meticulous measurements of muons—elementary particles that rain down on Earth from deep space and are capable of traveling through solid objects—researchers were able to characterize the densities within the pyramid, revealing the presence of an empty space that measures at least 100 feet (30 meters) in length.

The Structures Within

That Khufu’s pyramid may still hold a chamber waiting to be found is within the realm of possibility.

This massive structure was built on the Gaza Plateau during the Egyptian Fourth Dynasty (c. 2613 to 2494 BC) by the Pharaoh Khufu (sometimes referred to as Cheops), who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BC. The pyramid initially measured 481 feet (146 meters) in height, and was the tallest structure in the world for more than 3,800 years.

There are three known rooms inside the monument: the King’s Chamber, the Queen’s Chamber, and an unfinished room cut into the bedrock upon which the pyramid was built. There’s also the Grand Gallery, a sloped hallway-like structure measuring 28 feet (8.6 meters) high, 153 feet (46.7 meters) long, and about 6 feet (2 meters) wide. The original entrance leading to these internal structures, known as the “descending corridor,” is located at the North Face, but today, tourists are allowed to enter the pyramid through a tunnel attributed to Caliph al-Ma’mun (around AD 820).

A glimpse inside the Great Gallery. The void is located directly above this spectacular structure, and it’s roughly the same size and shape. (Image: ScanPyramids Mission)

Archaeologists don’t have the original blueprints to Khufu’s pyramid, and there’s no consensus on how the structure was created or what hidden features may still lie inside. The only known documents, written on papyri, only describe the logistics of the construction, such as how the stones were transported (fun fact: the Great Pyramid contains an estimated 2.3 million blocks).

Finding a New Way With Cosmic Rays

Detecting hidden chambers or corridors is not easy for archaeologists, who mustn’t damage ancient structures in any way. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities is very strict about what can and cannot be done to these historic monuments, requiring scientists to come up with innovative new ways of exploring the pyramids.

Back in the 1960s, archaeologist Luis Alvarez came up with the idea of using muons—a type of elementary particle that’s capable of penetrating dense materials—to peer inside Khafre’s pyramid (the second largest of the Giza Pyramids). Unfortunately, his team lacked the technological and scientific know-how to pull it off, but Alvarez’s idea has proven its worth. Today, the technique, known as muography, has been used by archaeologists to analyze ancient Roman structures and Mexican pyramids, and by geologists to explore features such as volcanoes. Muography has also been used to assess damage at the beleaguered Fukushima nuclear power plant, and by the US military to find hidden caves and tunnels in Afghanistan.

In terms of the physics involved, muon particles originate from the interactions of cosmic rays with the atoms in the upper atmosphere. They pepper the Earth at nearly the speed of light (they’re harmless to humans and other animal life), and researchers can visualize the presence and trajectory of these particles using various muon detection schemes. Muons are only partially absorbed by solid objects, and can thus penetrate stone. But by mapping the positions and trajectories if these particles, researchers can visualize the internal composition of solid structures—revealing things such as stone formations or open-air cavities.

“Similar to X-rays which can penetrate the body and allow bone imaging, these elementary particles can keep a quasi-linear trajectory while going through hundreds of meters of stone before decaying or being absorbed,” write the researchers in the new study.

Last year, the ScanPyramids project—the same team of researchers involved in this latest discovery—used muography and infrared thermography (which measures temperature) to uncover a corridor directly above the Great Pyramid’s original entrance. Using the same idea, the researchers have now discovered the large void located directly above the Grand Gallery.

To validate the presence of the void, the researchers recruited specialists from three different institutions. Each team employed their own unique muon detection technique, and stationed their scanners both within and outside the pyramid.

A researcher from Nagoya University at work. This muon detector was positioned within the Queen’s Chamber. (Image: ScanPyramids Mission)

Researchers from Nagoya University used nuclear emulsion films to track the muons in three dimensions, a team from France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) used scintillator hodoscopes (scintillating materials emit light when particles pass through it), and researchers from KEK High Energy Accelerator Research Organization did it using gas-based detectors. Because only one percent of muons reach the detectors, data must be meticulously accumulated over the course of several months (the exposures began in December 2015).

Explaining the Void

All three teams reached the same conclusion—there’s a large, open cavity directly above the Great Gallery, and it’s about the same size and shape. The void is about 70 feet (21 meters) above ground level, and is at least 100 feet (30 meters) long, but the researchers aren’t sure of its inclination.

So what is it?

During a press conference held yesterday, the researchers stubbornly refused to speculate. “We’re avoiding the word ‘chamber,’” said Mehdi Tayoubi. “We know that it’s a big void, but we’re not calling it a chamber.” The ScanPyramids scientists admitted they’re not experts in this area, and that specialists in Egyptian architecture should use this discovery as an invitation to join in and help explain the mysterious cavity.

“There are still many architectural hypotheses to consider; in particular, the big void could be made of one or several adjacent structures, and it could be inclined or horizontal,” write the researchers in the study. “The detailed structure of the void should be further studied…more interdisciplinary collaborations [will be required to help understand] the pyramid and its construction process.”

The researchers used augmented reality to create a 3D reconstruction of the void. (Image: ScanPyramid Mission)

Importantly, the researchers were able to rule out “non-void” possibilities. Because small gaps or crevices cannot be detected using the muon technique (it can only detect wide open spaces), there’s virtually no way the space is a “swiss cheese” of stone, as some scientists have speculated. It’s also unlikely, the researchers say, that it’s just a sign of interior wear-and-tear, some kind of collapse or construction flaw in the design, or the juxtaposition of small and large stones. Importantly, the area in question produced the same muon data patterns as scans made of the Grand Gallery—a known “void” within the structure.

Kathlyn M. Cooney, an Associate Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art & Architecture at the University of California Los Angeles, says it’s too early to speculate about the true nature of the void, but a hidden chamber is not an impossibility. Cooney, who wasn’t involved in the new study, said Khufu and his father Sneferu, unlike their Third Dynasty predecessors, began to “float” chambers within their pyramids.

“To construct these internal structures they had to build from the bottom up,” she told Gizmodo, “They had to create the chambers and passages as they built upwards.” To make these interior structures inaccessible (which seems to be the intent), Cooney says the ancient Egyptians refrained from making adjoining corridors, and case the pyramid from the outside to prevent access. “It was brilliant,” she said, “but it was a short-lived phenomenon, and it didn’t happen very often after these two kings.”

Like the ScanPyramids archaeologists, Cooney doesn’t know what’s inside the void, but she said “it would be extraordinary to find potential materials [such as] funerary items and treasures that are almost 5,000 years old.”

Potential Paths Forward

The obvious question at this stage is to ask what archaeologists plan on doing to find out more about this mysterious structure. During the press conference, the researchers said they’d like to perform more long term muon scans of the structure, and from different positions. This should allow them to create a more accurate picture of the space, and possibly find more hidden features.

More radically, INRIA researcher Jean-Baptiste Mouret, a member of the ScanPyramids team, is currently designing an innovative robot that will be capable of squirming through a very small hole, and possibly fly like an aerial drone once it’s within the cavity (welcome to archaeology in the 21st century).

An aerial view of the Great Pyramid. (Image: ScanPyramid Mission)

Unfortunately, the void is located in a very difficult place to access, and some drilling may be required. This prospect could be minimized should the researchers discover hidden adjoining corridors. Take the recently discovered corridor above the original entrance; this passageway could contain a tunnel all the way to the void in a mirror image of the structures below it.

“If an exploration has to be imagined, a good starting place would be from the suspected corridor at the North Face,” explained the researchers at yesterday’s presser. “But for the moment there is no discussion about that—this is not our responsibility. But because we are engineers, and because we love innovation, we asked Jean-Baptiste to join our team…and we’re currently in the thinking and design process.”

But as Cooney explained to Gizmodo, the researchers will still have to get past the Egyptian antiquities ministry.

“When you claim something like this, and even when you’ve got great science behind you, the Egyptians still have control over their national patrimony,” she said. “Ultimately, it’ll be up to them as to how they’ll want [the pyramid] investigated and analyzed as the archaeologists move forward.” She also says that outside researchers (which is the case here) will have to work with an Egyptian team, and work within the convoluted Egyptian political process.

Lastly, Cooney made a plea to both the press and the public to remain patient.

“We need to stop rushing archaeological discoveries that don’t need to be rushed and push scientists to make declarations about discoveries that aren’t yet proven,” she told Gizmodo, “It’s important to remember the old adage, ‘archaeology is destructive,’ and realize that the next generation will be able to do it better.”


This Is NASA’s New Mars Rover

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This Is NASA’s New Mars Rover

Mars 2020’s final design (Image: NASA/JPL)

NASA is racing to finish a new Mars rover, and the mission just got a launch and land date. The new rover will leave Earth by August 2020, and in February of 2021, it will hit the surface of the Red Planet to search for signs of life.

If the unnamed rover—which NASA is temporarily calling Mars 2020—looks familiar, there’s a good reason. It’s modeled on the very successful Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012 and, despite some glitches, has remained in good working order for years longer than expected. Although Mars 2020 looks a lot like Curiosity, there’s plenty under the hood that distinguishes it.

Mars 2020 will have better cameras and microphones as well as thicker wheels to keep it from breaking down like Curiosity’s did. There’s also a new coring drill and a ground-penetrating radar to look below the surface of Mars. Since Mars 2020’s primary objective is to look for signs of life, it will also have features to analyze organic chemicals, including a device that will test the ability to form oxygen on the planet for future colonization efforts. Some rumored features that the researchers considered, however, were ultimately rejected.

“We had been asked to study the possibility of bringing a helicopter with us,” Kenneth Farley, the project scientist for Mars 2020, said. “But Mars 2020 is certainly not going to be flying a drone.”

A model of Mars 2020’s robotic arm (Image: NASA)

Although the design for the 1,050 kilogram rover is finalized, there’s still plenty to do before its ready for launch in four years. Not only do they have to finish construction, NASA also has to select a landing site that will put the rover within range of the most likely hotbeds of previous Martian life.

“There’s a very short [launch] window in 2020,” Farley noted. “If we don’t hit it, we have to wait two years. So we’re working very hard to hit it.”

When the rover finally does hit Mars, the landing is going to be a nail-biter. The rover will enter the planet’s atmosphere at 11,000 mph and will use a combination of a supersonic parachute and above-ground rocket thrusters to brake during its descent. If all goes well, one of the first things the rover will beam back to us is footage of its (hopefully very soft) crash. And then Mars 2020’s real work can begin.

NASA’s Next Mars Rover Is Going to Be Seriously Badass

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NASA’s Next Mars Rover Is Going to Be Seriously Badass

Artist’s conceptual image of the 2020 rover. (Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Should all go according to plan, NASA will launch its next Martian rover in July 2020. The robotic probe is still under construction, but early signs are that the next-gen rover will be equipped with an impressive assortment of high-tech gadgets.

The rover is currently under construction at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and doesn’t have a name yet aside from “Mars 2020.” Like its predecessors, the future rover will scour the Red Planet for signs of previous habitability, and conduct scientific analyses of Mars’ geology, atmosphere, and other natural phenomena. But unlike those rovers that came before it, this one has a few more tricks up its metallic sleeve.

As NASA announced earlier this week, the probe will be equipped with no less than 23 different cameras. That’s 13 more than Spirit and Opportunity, and six more than Curiosity. Of its 23 cameras, nine will be dedicated to engineering tasks, seven to science, and another seven for tracking the probe’s entry, descent, and landing. These “eyes” will allow the probe to create sweeping panoramas, uncover obstacles, and study Mars in exquisite detail. Importantly, these cameras will work in tandem with the many scientific instruments onboard.

Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech

During its descent, cameras will snap photos of the parachute unfurling and as it slowly drifts down onto the planet’s red-stained surface. Once it’s out-and-about, an internal camera will peer closely at rock samples. When it’s done playing lab technician, the robot will “cache” the samples and deposit them onto the rocky surface for a future mission to collect (yes, this robot is going to be a litterbug).

The cameras will also provide more color and 3D imaging than previous missions. Whereas Curiosity had the Mastcam, the 2020 version will feature the Mastcam-z, where the “z” stands for “zoom.” The cameras will also be able to support more stereoscopic images, which are good for scanning geological features, assessing distance, and hunting for the next exploration site from far away.

The Navcams and Hazcams on the previous rovers, used for navigating and avoiding hazards, produced 1-megapixel digital images in black and white. The 2020 versions of these cameras will acquire high-rez 20-megapixel images in full color (hallelujah!). These cameras will also be able to reduce motion blurs, which means the robot will be able to snap images while zipping across the Martian surface. And because the lenses will be wider, the 2020 rover will be able to capture a broader view of the landscape.

“Our previous Navcams would snap multiple pictures and stitch them together,” said JPL’s Colin McKinney in an agency release. “With the wider field of view, we get the same perspective in one shot.”

Now, you might be thinking that full color, 3D-images filmed in high-resolution are not a big deal, but it is a big deal for a robot located 34 million miles away. With all these new gadgets comes troves of data, which then have to be beamed back towards Earth. This added equipment represents a frustrating limiting factor.

To address this, the cameras onboard the 2020 rover will compress the data (which Curiosity does as well), but another solution will be to use orbiting spacecraft as data relays. This idea was first tested during the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions, where NASA used its Mars Odyssey orbiter as an interplanetary relay station. Who says we’re not living in the future?

“We were expecting to do that mission on just tens of megabits each Mars day, or sol,” said mission scientist Justin Maki. “When we got that first Odyssey overflight, and we had about 100 megabits per sol, we realized it was a whole new ballgame.” By “sol,” Maki is referring to a single Martian day, which is 24 hours and 39 minutes long. For the 2020 mission, NASA is planning to use spacecraft already in Martian orbit, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter.

Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech

And that’s just the cameras. Other proposed scientific instruments include an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to examine Martian surface materials, a radar imager, a microphone, an ultraviolet spectrometer, and even a Mars Helicopter Scout (HMS)—a two pound solar powered drone that would buzz above the rover, helping it to select future exploration targets.

The 2020 rover could be accompanied by this aerial drone, called the Mars Helicopter Scout (HMS). (Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

In addition, the new rover will feature wheels that are more durable (Curiosity’s are in bad shape), have better traction, and have a performance-maximizing shape. The 2020 rover will also try to produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon-dioxide atmosphere, which could establish an important precedent for the Red Planet’s first colonists.

As to where the rover will land, that’s still not known. NASA has released a shortlist of landing sites, including Northeast Syrtis (an area once warmed by volcanic activity), the Jezero Crater (the remnant of a Martian lake), and Columbia Hills, which NASA’s Spirit lander explored during the early-to-mid 2000s.

Regardless of the site chosen, the next mission to Mars is going to be absolutely brilliant.