CAIRO, Egypt -- 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 at the end of a shaft first discovered by explorers 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 showed the robot to reporters Friday. On Tuesday, it will crawl 200 feet up the 8-inch-square shaft before a live, international television audience. In the United States, it will be carried on Fox at 7 p.m.
If all goes according to plan, television viewers and researchers will discover what's behind a door at the end of the shaft 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.
No shafts in other pyramids
Then begins the hard work -- trying to understand the meaning of whatever is behind the door, said Zahi Hawass, director of the Supreme Council of the Antiquities.
"You have a mystery and the mystery will be solved -- what's behind this door, whether it is something or nothing," 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 pyramid has such shafts, Hawass said. The Great Pyramid, built 4,500 years ago by Khufu, a ruler also known to history 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, Hawass said.
While researchers remain in one of the chambers in the heart of the pyramid, the robot will be climbing the shaft. The shaft rises over rough stone at a 40-degree angle from the chamber and ends at a door adorned with two brass handles. In a test using ultrasound equipment on the robot, researchers have determined the door is three inches thick.
The exploration team is currently determining how the robot will penetrate the door.
Khufu's pyramid has never yielded the treasures usually associated with pharaohs, perhaps because tomb robbers plundered it thousands of years ago. The pyramid has, however, long intrigued amateur and professional Egyptologists, who marvel at it as a feat of ancient engineering.
It has two inner chambers and, underneath, a burial chamber. The shaft the $250,000 robot was built to explore rises to the south from the middle chamber. Another shaft that heads north from the same chamber appears to come to a dead end. Two more stretch north and south from the topmost chamber, known as the King's Chamber, to the surface of the pyramid.
Paths to other worlds?
Hawass said the shafts from the King's Chamber may have been intended as pathways to other worlds for two of Khufu's spiritual incarnations -- the Sun God and Horus, god of goodness and light. If the shafts leading from the lower chamber also are symbols, a key to their meaning may lie at the end of the shaft the robot was built to explore.