Though it’s been studied for centuries, the Great Pyramid of Giza is still hiding some of its secrets. Scientists researching this colossal titan–born “ethereally in the celestial light” around 2,500 BC–have discovered a mysterious void deep inside its limestone core: A massive, 98-foot-long space just above the Grand Gallery that leads to the King’s Chamber. And they did it using space-age technology.
Archeologists believed that the resting place of Pharaoh Khufu only had four main spaces inside: The King Chamber at its heart, the Queen Chamber below it, the Grand Gallery, and an unfinished underground chamber cut right into the bedrock at its bottom. But now, a scientific team lead by Kunihiro Morishima, a professor of fundamental particle physics at the University of Nagoya, has discovered a fifth space of unknown origin and nature.
To scan the pyramid Morishima and his colleagues used something called muon tomography, a technique developed in the 1950s that is now frequently used in the imaging of nuclear reactors and nuclear waste sites to check for structural failures, and even image geological structures like volcanoes. This tech uses cosmic ray muons, the elementary space particles, which are constantly bombarding all of us, moving through our bodies, and sometimes even affecting our cellular genetic code. Muons are constantly traveling across our planet–in fact, about 10,000 muons hit each square meter of Earth’s surface per minute, going from one side of the Earth to the other at the speed of light. That includes solid materials like the limestone rock that forms the Great Pyramid.
That makes muons a great way to image large, solid structures. The team used nuclear emulsion films (a photography plate capable of registering charged particles like the muons), scintillator hodoscopes (an instrument that can detect high-energy particles and their trajectories), and detectors that could observe when gas gets ionized by the muons. They placed all these detectors inside and on the surface of the pyramid to measure how many muons could pass through its structure, obtaining precise three-dimensional data of all the cavities inside Cheops’s majestic tomb.
The study is part of ScanPyramids, an international scientific mission led by the HIP (Heritage Innovation Preservation) Institute and the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University to study the guts of all the Old Kingdom pyramids using this technology.
For now, we don’t know anything about this space except its dimensions: about 98 feet long and with a cross-section similar to the Grand Gallery. Its intended purpose will remain a mystery until the archeologists can get cameras inside–if they can get cameras inside. According to Zahi Hawass, Egyptologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs for the Egyptian government, the new chamber may simply be a gap left after the construction of the Grand Gallery. Whatever. I’m picking “launchpads for alien spaceships” for $1,000, Alex.