In 1937, as American aviator Amelia Earhart neared her 40th birthday, she was ready for a monumental, and final, challenge: She wanted to be the first woman to fly around the world.
For the past 77 years, her fate on that around-the-world attempt has been one of the world's great unsolved mysteries after her plane disappeared over the South Pacific Ocean.
Now that mystery may finally be solved. A fragment of Earhart's plane "has been identified to a high degree of certainty," according to Discovery News. The clue was discovered on the uninhabited atoll of Nikumaroro, in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati. Nikumaroro is about 350 miles southeast of Howland Island, Earhart's intended destination.
Through decades of intense detective work, researchers identified a 19-inch-wide by 23-inch-long aluminum patch applied to Earhart's plane while on her around-the-world quest. Because it was a hasty field repair, the patch is unique and distinctive from any other airplane part. Based on the dimensions and the rivet hole patterns, the fragment found on the Pacific atoll has been identified as being that repair patch from Earhart's plane.
The United States government spent $4 million looking for Earhart, which made it the most costly and intensive air and sea search in history at that time. The 67-day search covered 150,000 square miles of ocean and islands, but came up empty-handed.
Many researchers believe that Earhart's plane ran out of fuel and that Earhart and her navigator ditched at sea, leaving no trace.
But others have been relentless in their efforts to finally solve the mystery of Earhart's disappearance. Researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) have long been investigating Earhart's last, fateful flight since 1988.
“This is the first time an artifact found on Nikumaroro has been shown to have a direct link to Amelia Earhart,” Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.
The breakthrough would prove that, contrary to what was generally believed, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, did not crash in the Pacific Ocean, running out of fuel somewhere near their target destination of Howland Island.
Instead, they made a forced landing on Nikumaroro' smooth, flat coral reef. The two became castaways and eventually died on the atoll.
In June 2015, TIGHAR will return to Nikumaroro to further investigate an object seen under 600 feet of water just off the atoll's beach. The object is suspected to be a substantial portion of Earhart's plane.