Cosmic Rays Reveal Hidden Chamber In Egypt’s Great Pyramid

This 3D artist’s view of the Great Pyramid shows the location of the newly discovered void as a cluster of white dots. The pyramid was built for King Cheops around 2567 B.C. The King’s chamber is the largest and highest structure in the illustration. It’s separated from the Queen’s chamber by the tall, slanted Grand Gallery. A third subterranean chamber lies below the pyramid’s base. Annotations by the author. Credit: ScanPyramids mission

Sometimes nature has just the right tool, and our job is to figure out how to use it. The same way we use X-rays to see past skin to organ and bone, scientists have succeeded in using muons (MYOO-ons), produced when cosmic rays strike the upper atmosphere, to probe the inside of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt built over 4,500 years ago. Muons are sort of like electrons — they have a negative charge — but they’re about 207 times more massive. Cosmic rays are fast-moving protons flung out from catastrophic events like supernovae, but they also get pitched by our very own sun during powerful solar flares.

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only one that’s still mostly intact. Back in the day, it was covered in highly polished white limestone slabs, but these later slid and broke off in earthquakes and were carted away to make new buildings. Credit: Nina Aldin Thune

When a cosmic ray strikes the nucleus of an air molecule, it produces a shower of muons. 10,000 of the little buggers traveling at nearly the speed of light reach every square meter of Earth’s surface every minute! Don’t worry, they’re too small to cause any harm.

An artist’s concept of cosmic rays hitting Earth’s upper atmosphere and creating showers of secondary, less energetic particles like muons. Credit: Simon Swordy, University of Chicago.

Muons through both air and rock, but fewer make it through the denser rock compared to the air. An international team of scientists led by Kunihiro Morishima at Nagoya University in Japan placed special film within and around the pyramid that recorded the passage of muons as dark streaks. By measuring the number and the direction of muons picked up at these different locations, they essentially “X-rayed” the structure, revealing known an unknown cavities. No surprise, the technique’s called muon radiography.

This cutaway of the Great Pyramid shows it bombarded by muons, subatomic particles that can penetrate rock. Click here for a link to the team’s research paper in the journal Nature. Credit: ScanPyramids Mission

Muons revealed the King’s and Queen’s chambers, the subterranean chamber and all the known connecting passageways, but also detected something brand new: a large hollow or void above the Grand Gallery that appears to be a tunnel at least 100 feet (30 meters) long and some 26 feet (8 meters) high. The group confirmed their finding with two additional tests for muons using other detecting methods inside and outside the pyramid.

Egypt’s Great Pyramid was built for King Khufu (Cheops) and his queen. Credit: Wikipedia

Although the researchers are confident the chamber exists, they don’t know whether it’s horizontal or inclined or what might be inside. With no plans at the moment to access the sealed vault, its purpose remains unknown. The beauty of muon radiography is that we used the least invasive tool imaginable to get into the belly of Great Pyramid, but I suspect the mystery will get the better of archaeologists, who may be making plans even now to find a way in.

On somewhat different tack, high speed particles from the sun are expected to stoke minor to moderate (G1-G2) geomagnetic storms tonight and tomorrow night. Auroras are possible for the northern tier of states and Canada from about 9 p.m. till dawn Central time tonight and from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. Wednesday night. With the moon rising later, we’ll have dark skies for looking.

Watch a video on the ScanPyramids project for more details on the discovery

3 Responses

    1. astrobob

      Hi Lynn,

      Just so cool. It was tried a few years back by another group on the pyramids but wasn’t sensitive enough. Looks like they got it to work very well this time.

  1. mark anthony

    hi Bob. how’s the weather in Duluth? muons? maybe it’s time to talk to the ancient astronaut theorists. just joking of course.

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