Meet the tech that revealed a hidden chamber inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid

By now, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard about the recent discovery of a large hidden chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt. But how exactly did the scientists responsible discover an area that had consistently eluded researchers and other explorers investigating the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? The answer involves some cutting edge particle physics, computer modeling, and a whole lot of math…

What exactly has been achieved here?

As described in a new paper published in Nature, what the Japanese and French research team have discovered is a large secret space hidden within the Great Pyramid of Giza. This space is located above a large 100-foot long room called the Grand Gallery, and is comparable in size. Up until now, no-one was aware of the existence of this space. It is the first major internal structural discovery in the Great Pyramid since the 19th century.

Using a technique called “muon tomography,” the scientists were able to map it out without causing any damage. This is a substantially different approach to the British Egyptologists of the early 1800s, who frequently “investigated” pyramids by using gunpowder to gain access to different sections that had been sealed off.

Next, the researchers want to explore the space in more detail by using tiny flying drones, although this will take time to achieve.

great pyramid muon tomography scanpyramids

What are muons?

Earth is constantly bombarded with particles, which pass harmlessly through our bodies. A large number of these particles are called muons, which hit Earth’s surface at a rate of approximately 1 per square centimeter each minute of the day. Muons are elementary particles similar to electrons, but don’t lose as much energy when they travel, making them able to penetrate more deeply than other forms of radiation.

They were discovered by American physicists Carl D. Anderson and Seth Neddermeyer in 1936, as part of the pair’s studies into cosmic radiation. Muons can be detected based on the fact that their movement through gas ionizes the gas molecules. This was successfully demonstrated in 1937 through an experiment known as the “cloud chamber,” in which supersaturated vapor in a sealed environment is used to visualize ionizing radiation.

So how do you use them to scan for objects?

Muons are able to penetrate dense materials, such as meters of rock or even steel, more deeply than other types of radiation. Muon Scattering Tomography (MST) is one way of harnessing this ability by using it to peer through much thicker materials than would be possible using x-ray based tomography techniques such as computed tomography (CT) scanning. MST works by scattering the negatively-charged muon particles, and then observing the way they interact with and deflect off other materials.

great pyramid muon tomography scan
scanpyramids
scanpyramids

While they are able to pass through many, they can also be deflected by heavy elements such as uranium, or metals like lead. By using electrodes to collect the signal made by the scattered muons, and then applying some clever geometry and statistical models to measure how they are deflected, it’s possible to work out their trajectory with a high level of accuracy. This allows researchers to build up three-dimensional models of hidden objects, both in terms of shape and material.

Is this the first time that Muon Scattering Tomography has been used?

It’s not. The use of something called muon transmission radiography was actually used back in the late 1960s in a not dissimilar way to look for hidden chambers in the Pyramid of Chephren in Giza. (Check out this 1970 paper, “Search for Hidden Chambers in the Pyramids.”)

The development of Muon Scattering Tomography as an imaging tool, however, is far more recent — and dates back to Los Alamos National Laboratory research in 2003. Since then, it has been used for multiple applications. In notable recent use-cases, it was employed by Toshiba for analyzing the reactor cores at the Fukushima nuclear complex. A company called Decision Sciences International Corporation has also used muon tomography in a scanner for searching for explosives, contraband material, and more, and then producing a 3D image of what has been scanned.

A similar form of muon tomography has additionally been used as a way of imaging magma chambers in volcanos to predict eruptions, and for discovering hidden tunnels inside the Bent Pyramid, named as a result of its unusual shape.

Emerging Tech

Ancient crater the size of NYC discovered under the Greenland ice sheet

A huge crater has been discovered beneath the ice of Greenland, and is thought to be the result of a meteorite impact millions of years ago. The crater is one of the largest ever discovered, measuring 19 miles across.
Mobile

New sensor from L’Oréal tracks UV exposure to keep your skin safe from the sun

L'Oréal has announced a new wearable sensor that attaches to your clothing and can track ultraviolet light. The sensor uses NFC instead of Bluetooth -- meaning it doesn't need a battery to work properly.
Emerging Tech

Stronger than steel, thinner than paper, graphene could be the future of tech

Since its discovery, graphene has set the research world on fire. What exactly is it, though, and what could it mean for the future of tech? Here's everything you need to know about what could be the next supermaterial to take center stage.
Gaming

Everything we know about 'Anthem', including new details on Javelin classes

BioWare announced an upcoming action role-playing game called 'Anthem' at EA Play 2017. Here's everything we know about the game so far, including gameplay, DLC, and when you'll be able to play it.
Emerging Tech

Students who designed transforming smart home will compete in Solar Decathalon

Modular smart homes are all the rage, and now some students from Virginia Tech are putting their money on their FutureHAUS, a modular, solar-powered, transforming smart home they're taking to the Solar Decathlon in Dubai.
Emerging Tech

Hotter than the sun: Chinese fusion reactor claims breakthrough

China’s “artificial sun” has reached a temperature of 180 million ºF with a heating power of 10 megawatts -- six times hotter than the center of the sun. The achievement could mark progress towards fusion as a clean energy source.
Product Review

Airselfie 2 may as well be a GoPro stapled to a drunk hummingbird

On paper, the Airselfie 2 is marketed as flying photographer that fits in your pocket and snaps selfies from the sky. Unfortunately it’s more like a HandiCam controlled by a swarm of intoxicated bumblebees
Emerging Tech

Warm up or cool down with the press of a button on the wrist-worn Embr

We review the Embr Wave, a personal heating and cooling wearable designed by a team of MIT engineers that’s now on Kickstarter. Our thoughts? It’s a little bit addictive.
Emerging Tech

Hope it doesn’t melt! Rocket to ISS carries vital supplies — including ice cream

A rocket has launched over Virginia's eastern shore, carrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Inside the spacecraft are supplies for the ISS itself and the crew onboard, such as scientific equipment and food.
Emerging Tech

‘Super-Earth’ discovered orbiting nearby star

Astronomers have discovered a large planet circling a sun nearby to Earth called Barnard's Star. The potential new planet is thought to be cold and icy and has a size of around 3.2 times the Earth.
Emerging Tech

OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully tests its asteroid-sampling arm

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, launched in September 2016, is closing in on its target of the Bennu asteroid. The craft has now unfurled its robotic arm, called the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), and tested it successfully.
Product Review

DJI has always been the king of drones, and the new Mavics are almost perfect

After flying both the Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom for over a week, we’re convinced that these are two of the best drones that DJI has ever made.
Emerging Tech

Microsoft’s friendly new A.I wants to figure out what you want — before you ask

Move over Siri and Alexa! Microsoft wants to build a new type of virtual assistant that wants to be your friend. Already making waves in Asia, could this be the future of A.I. BFFs?
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: A.I. selfie drones, ‘invisible’ wireless chargers

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!