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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Little Robot Reveals Mysteries of Great Pyramid

APResearchers from Boston's iRobot on Tuesday inserting the Pyramid Rover into the mysterious shaft leading to the hidden chamber.
CAIRO, Egypt -- A toy train-sized robot shone a light on one of history's lingering mysteries Tuesday, but left scientists and TV viewers peering through a hidden door in Egypt's Great Pyramid only to find what looked like another.

"It's another sealed door. ... This is very important," said an excited Zahi Hawass, the director of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, as the robot broadcast its first images.

The robot -- dubbed the Pyramid Rover -- took two hours to crawl through a narrow shaft, drilling through a door at the end of which before pushing in a camera connected to a thin cable to see what lay behind.

The footage showed a small, uncluttered space backed by a vertical, sheer stone surface. Hawass said the next job for researchers was to study the footage and plan for further inspections.

Hawass's SCA, along with engineers from Boston firm iRobot and researchers from National Geographic, had spent a year planning for Tuesday's event.

"I enjoyed the moment of discovery. We were not disappointed ... we were successful in our mission," Tim Kelly, president of National Geographic's television and film division, said following the program.

U.S. station Fox TV and the National Geographic Channel went live with footage of the robot inching along the 60-meter-long shaft toward the door, giving TV viewers and scientists a simultaneous look at what was billed as the "Secret Chamber."

During the broadcast, Hawass made another find by lifting the lid on a stone sarcophagus found in a tomb built near the Great Pyramid, revealing the intact skeleton apparently of a man dating back to the period of the pyramid's construction some 4,500 years ago.

A tourist on the plateau discovered the tomb containing the ancient coffin in June.

"Every piece of this ... will be taken to the lab for X-ray. We will find out ... everything about him," Hawass said.

But this served merely as a prelude to the program's finale, the televised buildup, which was filled with re-enactment's of the pyramid's building and analysis of other pharaonic-era discoveries made on the world-famous Giza plateau.

As the robot began inching along the rough-surfaced shaft toward a limestone door adorned with two brass handles, its path was illuminated by a blue-tinged light and broadcast live to the world.

"Those grooves you see [on the shaft walls] are the fingerprints of the [pyramid's] workers," Hawass told a National Geographic television crew member as he watched a TV screen showing the robot's progression.

From a chamber inside the pyramid, engineers controlled the robot's movement by sending instructions via cables. The tons of stone all around made radio controls impracticable.

The Great Pyramid, built 4,500 years ago by Khufu, a ruler also known as Cheops, has four narrow shafts. It is the most magnificent of all Egypt's pyramids, formed by 2.3 million stone blocks, and has lost little of its original height of 146 meters and width of 230 meters.

The fresh obstacle blocking the probe inside the pyramid is sure to vex archaeologists, who have been puzzled by the two shafts in the giant structure since they were first discovered in 1872.

Some scholars think the shafts, which rise from an unfinished chamber, were built as vents. Others say they were passages for the dead king's soul to ascend to the afterlife. Still others claim they were a kind of celestial observatory.

Hawass said it was impossible to tell what might lie behind the newly discovered door.

"Maybe something belonging to Khufu is hidden behind the second one. Maybe there is nothing," he said. "That door looks very fragile because it has cracks all over."

Hawass said the shafts may have played symbolic roles in Khufu's 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.

The shafts -- measuring 20 square centimeters -- were not designed for human passage. Engineers from iRobot, benefitting from the experience of a German team that sent a robot as far as the door in 1993, have spent the last six months designing their $250,000 Pyramid Rover.

More investigation and scientific work were required before drawing up any plan for a further probe to look beyond the second door in the narrow shaft, Hawass said. "The plan will be done in a few months, maybe."

The first door, fitted with two copper handles, was discovered by German scholar Rudolph Gantenbrink in a 1993 expedition using another robot probe.

Pyramid Rover -- which uses the same technology that helped search for survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks -- had drilled a small hole through the first door on Friday, allowing it to peek through during the live broadcast Tuesday, an expedition spokesman said. (AP, Reuters)