Penn State researchers are subjecting an old, worn aluminum sheet to a particle beam from the heart of a nuclear reactor in hopes of unraveling the mystery of Amelia Earhartdisappearance.
Celebrated as the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, Earhart is also at the center of one of the best-known historical mysteries, one that has captivated enthusiasts since that fateful day in 1937 when her Lockheed Electra 10E disappeared from everybody. Radar. On July 2 of that year, Earhart, along with his navigator Fred Noonan, took off from Papua New Guinea during an attempt to circumnavigate the world. But the couple never landed at their destination, Howland Island in the central Pacific Ocean. During the flight, Earhart contacted the Coast Guard ship Itasca, apparently experiencing radio and instrument problems and unsure of its precise location. Earhart, Noonan, and their Electra were never found.
In 1991, Earhart enthusiast Richard Gillespie found an aluminum panel among storm-washed debris on the Pacific island of Nikumaroro, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) from Howland. Gillespie has said he suspects the panel may have come from Earhart’s plane, and now a Penn State team is using a neutron beam to, they hope, uncover hidden clues that could support that hypothesis. (Gillespie is the CEO of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, which in 1988 launched a project to solve Earhart’s disappearance.)
“At first, I was a bit skeptical,” said Kenan Ünlü, a professor of nuclear engineering at Penn State, said in a statement. “We’ve had inquiries about this kind of thing before, but we had an extensive call with [Gillespie], which made it clear that they are interested in any data we can provide, even if it shows that the patch could not belong to Amelia Earhart’s plane. We agreed to see what we could see. “
Related: The incredible life and times of Amelia Earhart
The researchers hope that a technique called neutron radiography could reveal invisible clues about the origin of aluminum. Investigators have already determined that it was attacked with an ax along its edges, except for one side that was “repeatedly flexed” to rip it from its source.
The firing of neutron beams from the campus’s Breazeale nuclear reactor should reveal any features of the panel that are made of something other than uniform aluminum, the researchers said. If the metal were simply aluminum, the neutrons would pass through cleanly. But any molecule that contains carbon or hydrogen on the surface, perhaps chunks of coral that have filled a serial number etched into the metal, for example, would scatter the neutrons. And the scattered neutron pattern would form an image of the coral (or other material) in the same way as a bone scan the image reveals the bones inside his arm.
Welsey Frey is the director of the McClellan Nuclear Research Center (MNRC) at the University of California, Davis, another site that uses a nuclear reactor for the same types of advanced neutron imaging. He and his team are not involved in the Penn State project. He said the Penn State analysis is likely to show interesting characteristics of the aluminum foil that could help link it to Earhart’s blueprint or disprove the connection. But they are unlikely to find definitive proof that the aluminum came from that particular fuselage.
“Will they get information on when that metal was produced? Yes, they most likely will. Will they be able to link it to Amelia Earhart’s plane? Probably not.”
Neutron radiography is similar to X-ray imaging, he said. X-rays pass through soft tissues in the body, but bounce off harder tissues or bones, which on average are made up of heavier atoms that tend to block X-ray light. Similarly, neutrons pass easily through certain materials, such as aluminum, but they tend to bounce off materials they contain hydrogen Y Coal.
If researchers were lucky enough to get their hands on an aluminum foil from Earhart’s plane with a serial number hidden under organic matter like coral, and if that serial number were on a confirmed list as belonging to his plane, then neutron radiography could definitely prove the origin of aluminum. It would also have the advantage of not damaging the object, unlike other means of finding such a serial number. But that would require a lot of luck, Frey said.
The Penn State researchers also plan to use a related technique, known as neutron activation analysis, to accurately identify the chemical composition of the material, according to Ünlü.
“This approach can determine the ingredients of a material at a sensitivity level of parts per million or parts per billion,” he said.
Frey said that is much more promising. Different alloys were used for different purposes at different times in history. If it turned out that the aluminum used an alloy that wasn’t developed until WWII, for example, then it can’t be from Earhart. But if it matches the alloys used to build airplanes in Earhart’s era, that would strengthen the case that ties it to his airplane. (Frey said he has used the same technique to see if a horseshoe found in his backyard may have come from a Vaquero, one of the Spanish-speaking cowboys who is rumored to have watered his cows in a pond near his home, in the 19th century. His analysis of the steel showed that it came from before WWII, which supported the theory. But that doesn’t prove the connection.)
The results of the Penn State analysis will not be public until later this year, the researchers said. They scoffed that they had discovered new information, but said they need to refine their focus to get images of this object before they are sure.
Originally posted on Live Science.