Robot seeks answers to Great Pyramid's mystery

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A ROBOT the size and shape of a child’s toy train is exploring one of the enduring questions of Egypt’s Great Pyramid: what lies behind a door at the end of a shaft that explorers first discovered in the 19th century?

Engineers from the Boston firm iRobot and researchers from National Geographic and the Egyptian government’s Supreme Council of the Antiquities, who are collaborating on the project, showed the robot to reporters yesterday.

On Tuesday, it will crawl 200ft up the 8in-square shaft before a live, international television audience. If all goes according to plan, viewers and researchers will discover what is behind the door at the same moment.

"It’s a moment of revelation that scientists get to experience fairly often, but the rest of us don’t," said Tim Kelly, president of National Geographic’s television and film division.

Then begins the hard work of discovery - trying to understand the meaning of whatever is behind the door, said Zahi Hawass, director of the antiquities council.

"You have a mystery and the mystery will be solved - what’s behind this door, whether it is something or nothing." Mr Hawass said, adding it was difficult to guess what would be found. "Whatever we are going to find, there still will be a lot of work for us to do."

No other Egyptian pyramids has such shafts, Hawass said. The Great Pyramid, built 4,500 years ago by Khufu, a ruler also known as Cheops, has four.

The shafts may have played symbolic roles in Khufu’s unique religious philosophy. Khufu proclaimed himself Sun God during his life - pharaohs before him believed they became sun gods only after death - and he may have tried to reflect his ideas in the design of his pyramid, Mr Hawass said.

The robot’s shaft rises at a 40 degree angle from a chamber in the heart of the pyramid and ends at a door adorned with two brass handles. Using ultrasound equipment mounted on the robot, researchers have determined the door is 3in thick.

Engineers from iRobot benefiting from the experience of a German team that sent a robot as far as the door in 1993, have spent six months designing their machine. It has two sets of flexible treads that allow it to grip the top and bottom of the shaft.

Flippers at its front increase its manoeuvrability - the German robot could not negotiate a bulge near the door.

Instructions are sent via trailing cables; the tons of stone all around made radio controls impracticable, according to iRobot’s Gregg Landry.