The quest to discover what happened to Amelia Earhart has turned to ... a nuclear reactor. Popular Mechanics reports scientists at Penn State University are focusing not on Earhart herself but her plane, a Lockheed Model 10-E Electra. In 1991, longtime Earhart searcher Ric Gillespie found an aluminum panel on the Pacific island Nikumaroro, some 300 miles from Howland Island, where Earhart was headed when she vanished. Fast forward nearly 30 years, to October 2020: Daniel Beck caught an Earhart documentary on the National Geographic channel that discussed the panel and suggested it could hold clues—if only there was technology to uncover them. "And I realized that technology exists," Beck says in a press release. "I work with it every day" at the Penn State Radiation Science and Engineering Center, home of the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor.
Researchers there will now employ neutron radiography, which makes use of a neutron beam from the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, on the panel. Beck explains: "As the beam passes through [the aluminum panel], if it were uniform density, we wouldn't see anything. If there’s paint or writing or a serial number, things that have been eroded so we can't see with the naked eye, we can detect those." They'll also use neutron activation analysis, which "can determine the ingredients of a materials at parts-per-million or parts-per-billion level sensitivity," says RSEC head Kenan Ünlü. "We’re not going to find Earhart’s signature on the patch or something that definitely confirms this belongs to her plane," adds Beck. "We will provide more data about what this patch is." They expect to have findings ready to share by late spring. (Read more Amelia Earhart stories.)