Scientists use nuclear reactor to investigate Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance

Earhart under the nose of her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra, March 1937, Oakland, California, before setting off on her last attempt around the world before she disappeared. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the bravest women of the 20th century, Amelia Earhart, unexpectedly disappeared while trying to fly around the world. Now scientists have turned to nuclear technology to analyze a piece of scrap metal that a suspect suspected was part of Earhart’s plane wreck. In this way, they hope to piece together the last moments of the pioneer aviator’s last hours.

A tragic end for a brave pioneer

Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic. In 1937 Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan flew their Lockheed Model 10-E Electra on an even more ambitious quest: to fly around the world. On July 2, 1937, they were about six weeks and 20,000 miles in their journey when their plane suddenly crashed on the way to Howland Island in the Pacific, halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

Howland Island is a flat piece of land about 2,000 meters long and 460 meters wide. It must therefore have been very difficult to distinguish from similar-looking cloud shapes from Earhart’s height. Of course, Earhart and Noonan were aware of the challenges, so they had a detailed plan that included tracking their routes using sky navigation and connecting to a US Coast Guard ship off Howland Island using radios.

But despite their well-thought-out contingency plans, they were just unlucky. At the start, witnesses reported that a radio antenna could have been damaged by the maneuver. There were extensive cloudy conditions that morning as well. Later research also indicated that the airmen may have used outdated, inaccurate maps.

On the morning of July 2, 1937, at 7:20 a.m., Earhart reported their position to the crew of the Coast Guard ship and set their aircraft on a course 32 kilometers southwest of the Nukumanu Islands.

“We have to be on top of you, but we cannot see you. The fuel is running out. I couldn’t reach you by radio. We’re flying at 1,000 feet. ”

The ship replied, but there was no indication that the signal ever reached Earhart’s plane. The Coast Guard ship released its oil burners to signal the leaflets, but they weren’t seen by all reports. Noonan’s map of the island’s position was about five nautical miles away, later investigations showed, and it is likely that the plane has run out of fuel.

Despite a huge search and rescue mission with 66 aircraft and nine ships, the fate of the two aviators remains a mystery to this day. Over the years, the puzzle only got worse, reinforced by countless conspiracy theories surrounding Earhart’s last days.

Neutrons and dirty metal plates

Daniel Beck, a pilot who also manages the engineering program for the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center (RSEC), which is home to the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, was shocked to see a National Geographic documentary about Earhart’s disappearance one Aluminum plate believed to be part of the wrecked aircraft. The documentary ended with the idea that maybe at some point in the future the technology will advance enough that scientists can get more information out of the panel.

“I realized there was technology. I work with it every day, ”said Beck.

The scientist received Richard “Ric” Gillespie, who heads the International Group for the Reconstruction of Historic Aircraft (TIGHAR) and was featured in the documentation, and offered to analyze the metal part in his laboratory using neutron technology.


Kenan Ünlü, director of the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center, holds a metal patch in his hand that may have come from Amelia Earhart’s plane. Photo credit: Kenan Ünlü / Penn State.

The metal plate was recovered from storm rubble on Nikumaroro, a Pacific island about 480 kilometers from Howland Island. Some have previously suggested that Earhart’s plane made an emergency landing on the reef around the small, uninhabited island. A human skeleton was found even in 1940, and although the bones were lost, a 2018 study found that historical records of Earhart’s bone measurements were closer than 99% of the general population.

A skull fragment, possibly from the original skeleton, was found in a warehouse in a museum on a nearby island and is currently being tested to see if it is a genetic match with a relative of Earhart’s. Beck’s goal was to do a similar investigation, only that instead of using genetics, he wanted to use the reactor’s neutron beams to uncover the history of the metal plaster. Maybe they could find a long faded serial number or other markings that could connect the debris to the Electra.

Beck and colleagues placed the sample in front of the neutron beam, while a digital imaging site was placed behind the sample. As the neutron beam passed through the sample and then through the imaging plate, an image was recorded and digitally scanned.

“If the beam went through, we wouldn’t see anything if the density was even,” said Beck. “If there is color or writing or a serial number, things that have been eroded so we can’t see with the naked eye, we can tell.”

This investigation revealed that the metal plate had ax marks on the edges, with the exception of one of the edges where the metal must have torn from what it was attached to. In other words, not much that ties it to Earhart.

“It doesn’t appear that this patch showed up by itself,” Beck said. “If it was chopped with an ax, we should see points for iron or nickel that the ax left along that edge. The neutron activation analysis provides this detail in a very fine resolution. “

Currently, the researchers plan to conduct further research with more extensive experiments, including adjusting the exposure time and the power level of the reactor.

Even if at some point you find nothing related to Earhart, this research is still valuable. For one, it disqualifies the object so that other people don’t waste time in the future. Second, it sets a precedent that could stimulate further research with neutron radiography.

“It is possible that we can learn something that will actually prevent this artifact from being part of Earhart’s plane, but I prefer the knowledge! It’s so exciting to work with scientists who share our passion for knowing the truth, whatever it is, ”Gillespie said in a statement.

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