For decades, the question of what happened to the fearless American pilot Amelia Earhart has been an enticing puzzle for history buffs, but a grainy sonar image of possible plane wreckage could be key in answering the nearly 76-year-old mystery.
Possible theories for the heroine's demise include a devastating crash into the Pacific, as well as capture and execution by the Japanese, according to PBS. However, researchers working with The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believe they have found evidence that Earhart landed on a remote reef, after which her plane washed into the ocean and sank, according to the group's website.
TIGHAR-funded sonar imaging has revealed a 22-foot long object that represents a true "anomaly" in the group's data, Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News. The piece, possibly wreckage from Earhart's Lockheed Electra, is located 600 feet beneath the Pacific Ocean and just west of the remote Nikumaroro Island.
The object came to light during a forensic analysis of data collected during a $2.2 million TIGHAR expedition last July. That trip marked the group's 10th Earhart fact-finding mission, according to ABC News.
The 39-year-old Earhart disappeared without a trace on July 2, 1937, while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the world, with only a navigator as company. Earhart lost radio contact during the journey's most difficult leg, as they headed from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island in the Pacific, Time notes.
Past expeditions by TIGHAR have turned up other intriguing, albeit inconclusive, clues, including what appears to be a jar of 30s-era freckle cream found on Nikumaroro, ABC points out.
The jar, along with an American-made woman's compact, buttons and the zipper from a flight jacket, lend credence to TIGHAR's theory that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, did not die immediately but were able to make an emergency landing on the uninhabited island's reef.
But the case is far from solved, TIGHAR notes on its website.
"The better a piece of evidence looks, the harder you have to try to disqualify it," TIGHAR writes. "So far, the harder we’ve looked at this anomaly, the better it looks. ... Maybe it’s pure coincidence that it‘s the right size and shape to be the Electra wreckage – the Electra that so much other evidence suggests should be in that location."
The next step is to raise more money and return for an 11th expedition. However, as a nonprofit, TIGHAR will have to raise the funds for the trip themselves.
"We currently project that it will take nearly $3,000,000 to put together an expedition that can do what needs to be done," Gillespie told Discovery. "It's a lot of money, but it's a small price to pay for finding Amelia."