Archaeology

Cosmic Rays Help Search the Pyramids: Photos

A new investigation is tapping cosmic rays to explore the interior of Egypt's pyramids.

In one of the most ambitious and innovative projects ever, Egypt’s main pyramids will be investigated by a team from Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering, Nagoya University in Japan and Paris-based non-profit organization Heritage, Innovation and Preservation. Cutting-edge technologies like infrared thermography, muon radiography and 3-D reconstruction will look inside four pyramids, which are more than 4,500 years old. They include Khufu, or Cheops, Khafre or Chephren at Giza, the Bent pyramid and the Red pyramid at Dahshur. The current survey focuses on the Bent pyramid, so named because of its sloping upper half. Built by Snefru, founder of the Fourth Dynasty, the monument is the first with smooth faces after generations of stepped pyramids. Cosmic-ray muon radiographies are expected to provide more information about its construction. The work is under the authority of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.

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A team led by specialist Kunihiro Morishima, from the Institute for Advanced Research of Nagoya University, Japan, has entered the pyramid to install 40 plates. The monument has two entrances, one on the north side and one on the west side. These entries open onto two corridors leading to two burial chambers arranged one above the other.

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The plates contain two emulsion films that are sensitive to muons, so they basically work as muon detectors. Muons continually shower the Earth's surface. Just like X-rays pass through our bodies allowing us to visualize our skeleton, these elementary particles, weighing around 200 times more than electrons, can easily pass through any structure, even mountains. Plate detectors placed inside the pyramid allow researchers to discern void areas -- that muons cross without problem -- from denser areas where some of them are absorbed or deflected.

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Now covering a surface of about 10 square feet in the pyramid's lower chamber, the plates have been left at the site to accumulate data. In early 2016 the emulsion films will be processed in Cairo. Then they will be analyzed to generate muon radiographies images, potentially revealing hidden chambers in the pyramid. "In case a void is detected, the images generated from the emulsion film analysis show a contrast difference," Mehdi Tayoubi, co-director with professor Hany Helal of the ScanPyramids mission, told Discovery News. "The principle is that you have to count the muons. Then you scan and process the image to generate an image with contrast," he added.

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The difficult part of the technique is producing highly sensitive detectors, which can be either gels like the ones used for silver prints or scintillators. Enough data then needs to be accumulated over days or months to emphasize the contrasts. In order to find out the best chemical formula of the emulsion films, plate samples have already been installed in the Queen Chamber of Khufu's Pyramid. "We need to find the best formula for the environment inside the pyramid. The installation will be completed at a later stage in 2016," Tayoubi said.

Read the article: Pyramid Secret Chambers Sought Using Cosmic Rays