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WASHINGTON D.C. - Just as dental X-rays find cavities in your teeth, a group of researchers plan to use a natural form of radiation, called cosmic ray muons, to search for cavities in a 2,000-year-old pyramid.
The technique might also be used to spot contraband nuclear material and monitor volcanoes.
The muons, which are like heavy electrons, form like a shower when a cosmic ray crashes into an air molecule in the upper atmosphere. About 1,000 muons pass through a square foot on the Earth’s surface every minute.
The average energy of these particles is about a million times greater than that of the X-ray photons used in dental exams. This higher energy lets the muons pass through thick materials.
"X-rays are good for going through flesh, but not through rock or metal," said Rick Chartrand of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Cosmic ray muons, on the other hand, can pierce six feet of lead with only a slight change to their speed and direction.
Scientists can detect these slight changes to see inside a pyramid, or even a volcano – possibly predicting an eruption.
But following in Alvarez’s footsteps, Arturo Menchaca-Rocha of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and his colleagues plan to use cosmic ray muons to scan the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico.
This 215-foot tall pyramid was revered by the Aztecs of the 13th Century, who arrived 600 years after the ancient city of Teotihuacan was completely abandoned.
"No one knows why the pyramid was built," said Arturo Menchaca-Rocha of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "There might be an important person buried there."
A nearby structure called the Pyramid of the Moon is known to have been a grisly burial site, but none of the same tomb markers have yet been found in the Pyramid of the Sun.
Menchaca-Rocha’s team plans to place a small muon detector in a tunnel 26 feet below the pyramid’s base. The tunnel was discovered in the 1970s and is believed to be older than the pyramid itself.
The scientists expect that after a year of observation they will be able to say whether there are any tunnels or rooms in the largely soil-filled pyramid.
A similar sort of experiment is studying the magma activity in volcanoes. The detectors in this case are placed around the mountain to measure muons that travel horizontally as much as half a mile through the volcano.
Kanetada Nagamine of the KEK Muon Science Laboratory in Japan and his colleagues have measured the amount of molten rock within the craters of two active volcanoes: Mt. Asama and Mt. West Iwate, both in Japan.
If levels of the molten rock rise, that could mean an eruption is imminent. Nagamine said an expanded version of this monitoring system could one day go on all potentially active volcanoes in the world, as a way to provide better warnings of disasters.