Scientists May Solve Amelia Earhart's Disappearance With a Nuclear Reactor
On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were en route to Howland Island in the Pacific, about 1,700 miles southwest of Honolulu. They were six weeks and 20,000 miles deep into their trip around the world. By then, Earhart had already become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and from Hawaii to the U.S. Mainland; her globetrotting trek would simply be the latest in a line of incredible accomplishments for the aviation pioneer.
But Earhart and Noonan never made it to Howland. Somewhere along the way, Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10-E Electra became too heavy and short on fuel, and the pilot and her navigator lost sight of the tiny, two-and-a-half-square-mile island in the middle of the ocean. No one knows exactly what happened next.
People have long searched for any sign of the Electra in a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean, and there’s an entire cottage industry of Earhart theories and hoaxes out there. Skeletons, crabs, firsthand accounts of people who might be Earhart, and even suspected pieces of debris emerge and are considered in the public eye.
That includes one particular piece of metal that enthusiast Ric Gillespie found in 1991 in a location 300 miles from Howland Island. (In global terms, and with our limited understanding of Earhart’s distressed flight, that’s really just a stone’s throw.)
While skeletal remains can be tested for DNA alongside living people descended from Earhart’s family, this scrap of metal, which spent decades scraping around a coral reef in corrosive ocean water and is a suspected piece of the Electra, is much tougher to figure out. Now, particle physics could help identify whether it’s legitimate.
Daniel Beck, the manager of the engineering program for the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center (RSEC), home to the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, invited Gillespie and the famous piece of metal to the university. Beck told Gillespie they could try to do the relevant analysis to match the ongoing genetic testing scientists were doing on suspected Earhart remains.
Using some of the reactor’s neutron beams, which operate like an X-ray, Beck’s laboratory can see trace amounts of things like paint that have worn off to the naked eye.
“A sample is set in front of the neutron beam, and a digital imaging plate is placed behind the sample,” Penn State says in a statement. “The neutron beam passes through the sample into the imaging plate, and an image is recorded and digitally scanned.”
In this case, the Penn State scientists can also study the edges of the patch to backform a story of how the patch was removed. One side of the patch, they say, appears to have axe marks. If so, the neutron beam can identify any scrapes of axe material that could be left.
The other edge, which appears to have been wiggled back and forth until it snapped off, likely wouldn’t have any trace metals. The patch will likely take months more to study in detail.
The nice thing about this collaboration is that even failing to find “proof” related to Earhart will still have scientific and cultural value; knowing something didn’t belong to her plane, for example, is helpful. And testing such a special piece of metal is good for the people who are trying to further the development of neutron radiography. But hopefully, the news will be better than just those worthy scientific goals.