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Can Scientists Unravel the Mystery Behind The Disappearance of Amelia Earhart? 

by Kareena Dodeja

Can Scientists Unravel the Mystery Behind The Disappearance of Amelia Earhart? 

March 19, 2021

One might remember Amelia Earheart as an icon woman that suddenly disappeared while travelling the world. Scientists have been trying to find ways to explain her disappearance and they have come up with an idea to use nuclear technology to analyze the metal debris found from Earheart’s plane. Could this be the last piece of the puzzle that will help us in finding out what happened to Amelia?

The Unforgettable Amelia Earheart

Earheart is one of the unforgettable historical figures; her disappearance is a topic of conversation to this date to scientists and conspiracy theorists. Amelia Earheart was one of the bravest women of the 20th century and one day, she just vanished. She was the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. She went on a quest to fly around with the world with her navigator, Fred Noonan in 1937 in their Lockheed Model 10-E Electra. They took off from Papua New Guinea to start off their adventure.

They traveled for 20,000 miles for around six weeks on July 2, 1937, when their plane suddenly crashed to Howland Island in the Pacific. The route was halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Earheart and Noonan were prepared for the challenges; they had an elaborate plan to track their routes using celestial navigation that linked to the U.S Coast Guard vessel stationed at Howland Island.

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How Did She Disappear- Conspiracy Theories And More

It was difficult to distinguish Howland Island from a similar-looking cloud-shaped land from Earheart’s altitude. Their plans were to no avail as the unfortunate incident led to the disappearance. Their radio antenna for communication was cut off and there were reports of overcast on that day. It was proven later that they were using outdated and inaccurate maps that put them in jeopardy.

What is disheartening is that Earheart reported to the crew at the Coast Guard about her location at the southwest of the Nukumanu Islands at 7:20 am. She explained her situation of how they couldn’t see the coast guard and the fuel was running low. They were flying at 1,000 feet and suddenly the signal stopped.

They were experiencing radio and route issues during the flight. The Coast Guard ship attempted to find the signal but Noonan’s chart was off by five miles as the plane ran out of fuel. A rescue mission of 66 aircrafts and nine ships was conducted to find them.

There have been conspiracy theories surrounding the sudden disappearance but it remains a mystery to this day. The ray of hope came in the form of Daniel Beck, a pilot, and engineer at the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Centre (RSEC). He was moved by the documentary on the disappearance of Earheart, the ending of technology advancing to help find her caught his attention.

He came up with an idea with his fellow scientist, Richard ‘Ric’ Gillespie who led the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). The documentary had a huge impact on both of them. They wished to analyze the metal part of the plane using neutron technology.

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Amelia Earhart's disappearance in 1937 created a mystery that is yet to be solved. Image Courtesy: Smithsonian

Nuclear Technology Can Solve The Mystery

The metal part from Earheart’s plan is held by Kenan Unlu, the director of Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Centre. Gillespie found an aluminum panel in the debris in 1991 and he suspected it was from the plane. It was found in debris on Nikmaroro, a Pacific Island 480 kilometers from Howland Island. There were theories of how Earheart made an emergency landing on a reef on a small island but nothing supported it.

In a study in 2018, they discovered that a human skeleton found in 1940 matches the bone measurements of Earheart than other people they suspected. They kept the skeleton in a storage facility in a museum to test it for a genetic match with any of Earheart’s relatives.

The scientists wanted to investigate it using the reactor’s neutron beams to understand the history of the metal piece. It could be the evidence that could help answer the mystery behind the disappearance. This could find a serial number that faded away that might link it to the debris at Electra.

The director of the McClellan Nuclear Research Center (MNRC) at the University of California, Welsey Frey is doing similar research using nuclear reactors for advanced neutron imaging. He said that neutron radiography is similar to X-ray imaging. He says that if the aluminum sheet from Earheart’s plane has a hidden serial number under organic matter like coral, then it would be confirmed to belong to her plane.

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Was the Nuclear Reactor Experiment a Bust?

The researchers were trying to find any hidden clues from the aluminum by using a technique called neutron radiography. They used the Breazeale Nuclear reactor to fire neutron beams to reveal any information from the aluminum. It would be similar to an X-ray image trying to reveal the bones in our arms.

Beck and his team had a plan to place the sample in front of the neutron beam while digital imaging would take place behind the sample. When the beam would pass through, it would help find any serial number or writing that was eroded to the naked eye. The image would be recorded and digitally scanned to detect, he explained.

This was disappointing as there was no match to Earheart, they could only find axe marks along the edges of the metal plate. He said that if the metal piece was chopped with an axe, we would catch iron or nickel left by the axe as the neutron activation analysis gives precise information at a great resolution.

They did not want to stop here; the researchers will continue to perform more experiments by adjusting the irradiation time and power time of the reactor. Even if nothing matches Earheart, this could provide valuable inputs to the research of neutron radiography. The comprehensive experiments could set a precedent for research in the future.

Gillespie in a statement mentioned that even if it disqualifies Earheart’s plane, he was excited to work with scientists that were passionate to find out the truth. The researchers are left with an old aluminum sheet to find out what happened to Amelia Earheart. We are left with more questions about this mystery.

 

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