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The case of Amelia Earhart's disappearance is still one that draws much discussion, nearly 84 years after the famous pilot's plane went missing somewhere over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island. Now, nuclear scientists think they're about to crack the mystery.
Among her many records, Earhart was the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean during a time when aviation was still in its relative infancy in 1928. She also authored many books about her escapades, becoming a celebrity in the United States.
However, she is now largely remembered due to the mysterious nature of her disappearance and assumed death in 1937, after last being seen with with her navigator Fred Noonan in Lae, New Guinea, on 2 July 1937, on the last land stop before Howland Island and one of their final legs of an attempt to circumnavigate a flight around the world.
Nuclear scientists are going to solve the conundrum once and for all though by using neutrons to probe wreckage from the remote island of Nikumaroro, a coral atoll in the western Pacific Ocean.
A piece of fuselage was recovered from the island in 1991, amid speculation that Earhart had landed there back in 1937. However, it was damaged by decades of rolling around on the ocean floor, and researchers never had a way to confirm if it was from the aviator's plane.
Nuclear scientist Daniel Beck, though, will have the wreckage analysed by the Radiation Science & Engineering Center at Pennsylvania State University where he works.
Beck attributes watching the National Geographic documentary Expedition Amelia as giving him the idea to analyse it using nuclear science, and subsequently contacted Richard Gillespie of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, who had found the wreckage initially.
Gillespie said of the piece of wreckage: "The size of the artefact matches a patch that was installed on the Earhart aircraft when she was in Miami, Florida, in late May 1937 at the start of her second world flight attempt."
He continued: "The artefact was removed from an aircraft by a combination of stress and human action."
Explaining how the scientists would be analysing the wreckage, Gillespie explained: "Two processes will be used to probe the piece of fuselage. One will be neutron radiography, whereby the wreckage is placed between a neutron beam and an imaging plate, creating a sort nuclear x-ray."
This will give an impression of the wreckage and may reveal clues hidden to the naked eye due to decades of erosion, such as a serial number or trace amounts of paint.
Gillespie explained that the other process will be Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA), which will reveal the material makeup of the artefact with parts-per-billion sensitivity thanks to a process that will release specific energy gamma rays, and he's confident that the artefact will be the real deal.
"All of its physical properties - the type of aluminum, the thickness of the sheet, the type and size of the one surviving rivet, are correct for Earhart's aircraft", he said.
TIGHAR have also recovered a photo taken of Nikumaroro three months after Earhart's plane disappeared, which appears to show an unidentified object in the water, while various other artefacts have been recovered from the island too, including a pocket knife matching the one in Earhart's inventory and glassware matching a type used for women's cosmetics in the 1930s.
Ultimately, the findings could reveal if the fuselage really did come from Earhart's doomed aircraft, and Beck said: "There are many theories out there awaiting the final clue to confirm her final location.
"We look forward to using science to provide additional information to help the mystery come closer to being solved."
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