It sounds like it could almost be a plot for a movie à la James Cameron and his dives to Titanic. A team sets out to unlock the mysteries of the Great Pyramid at Giza by sending a mini robot deeper inside than anyone has ever ventured before. The Pyramid of Khufu is the only wonder of the ancient world that is still standing, and for 4,500 years it has amazed, mystified, and frustrated those who have tried to figure out its secrets. While some exploration has been partially successful, apparently no one has yet been able to access what lies behind two (that have been discovered so far) stone doors at the heart of the pyramid.
Andrew Johnson of The Independent writes, “Now technicians at Leeds University are putting the finishing touches to a robot which, they hope, will follow the shaft to its end. Known as the Djedi project, after the magician whom Khufu consulted when planning the pyramid, the robot will be able to drill through the second set of doors to see what lies beyond.”
He explains that, “At [the pyramid’s] heart are two rooms known as the King’s Chamber and the Queen’s Chamber. Two shafts rise from the King’s Chamber at 45-degree angles and lead to the exterior of the monument. They are believed to be a passageway designed to fire the king’s spirit into the firmament so that he can take his place among the stars. In the Queen’s Chamber, there are two further shafts, discovered in 1872. Unlike those in the King’s Chamber, these do not lead to the outer face of the pyramid.”
“No one knows what the shafts are for. In 1992, a camera sent up the shaft leading from the south wall of the Queen’s Chamber discovered it was blocked after 60 metres by a limestone door with two copper handles. In 2002, a further expedition drilled through this door and revealed, 20 centimetres behind it, a second door.”
It keeps sounding more and more like some movie or kitschy TV plot where attempts to explore ancient ruins or monuments are made, but keep coming up against new obstacles, as if somehow the structures are protected from outsiders with trap doors, sliding panels, or worse.
Stuart Fox of TechNewsDaily writes that, “The robot explorer, built by researchers at the Leeds University, England, in collaboration with French aviation company Dessault and British robotics company Scoutek, will incorporate a small fiber optic camera for looking around corners, an ultrasonic probe for testing the quality of the rock and a releasable mini-robot that can fit through spaces as small as 0.7 inches in diameter. Additionally, the robot uses special nylon and carbon fiber wheels that won’t deface the pyramid’s sensitive rock.”
Shaun Whitehead, Systems engineer and mission manager told TechNewsDaily that, “All the robots were designed from scratch to do as little damage to the shafts as possible…The previous robots both used tracks that scrubbed away at the floor and ceiling as they moved. We use soft brace pads to grip the walls, like an inchworm or the technique that rock climbers use for ascending ‘chimneys.’ The wheels don’t need to grip, they need to slip as much as possible.’”
Recognizing the challenges they face, the team plans to continue their expedition until they succeed in reaching the end of the shafts. Just like so many great mysteries, you get to one door, figurative or literal, and find yet another door just beyond. “We have been working on the project for five years,” Dr. Robert Richardson of the Leeds University School of Mechanical Engineering has said. “We have no preconceptions. We are trying to gain evidence for other people to draw conclusions. There are two shafts. The north shaft is blocked by a limestone door and nothing has penetrated that door. With the south shaft a previous team has measured the thickness of the stone, drilled through it and put a camera through it and found there was another surface. We are going to determine how thick that is and we could drill through it. We are preparing the robot now and expect to send it up before the end of the year. It’s a big question, and it’s very important not to cause unnecessary damage. We will carry on until we find the answer. We hope to get all the data possible which will be sufficient to answer the questions.”
This monumental structure (monumental in so many ways) has survived for so long, thank goodness it seems they’re taking a gentle approach to their exploration. While I’m still not entirely comfortable with the idea of drilling even tiny holes in the Great Pyramid, this expedition certainly has piqued my curiosity for what may soon be revealed to be behind these very closed doors.