New Clue Could Solve The Amelia Earhart Mystery That's Captivated America For 75 Years

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Mar. 20 2012, Updated 9:00 a.m. ET

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By Debbie Emery - Radar Reporter

It has been almost 75 years since Amelia Earhart set out on her ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the globe and now a new clue could finally solve the mystery that has captivated America ever since.

After departing from Miami on June 1, 1937 in her small Electra plane, the female aviator and her only crew member, Fred Noonan, made a number of stops in South America, Asia and New Guinea on their 29,000 mile trip. Their last known position was on July 2 near the Nukumanu Islands in the South Pacific, heading towards Howland Island where they vanished without a trace, becoming one of history's most speculated upon cold cases.

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Now an enhanced analysis of a photo taken just months later, that was uncovered in 2010 from a plane wreck, shows what experts think could be the landing gear of her aircraft protruding from the ocean near where she disappeared, reported the Chicago Sun-Times.

The discovery has sparked a joint venture by the State Department, historians, scientists and salvagers from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery to revisit the island in July in the hope of finding Earhart, Noonan and the doomed plane.

“The most important thing is not whether we find the ultimate answer or what we find, it is the way we look,” explained executive director of the group Ric Gillespie. “We see this opportunity to explore ... the last great American mystery of the 20th century as a vehicle for demonstrating how to go about figuring out what is true.”

Oceanographer Robert Ballard, who is most famous for discovering the wreckage of the Titanic and the Bismarck, is assisting the expedition, and has dubbed the photo a “smoking gun” that narrows the search area from tens of thousands of square miles to a manageable size.

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Despite extensive searches of the region, no remains were ever found, sparking countless conspiracy theories including claims that the pair were U.S. government agents captured by the Japanese before World War II.

The new group of investigators believe that Earhart, who was 39 at the time of her disappearance, crashed on a reef near the atoll then known as Gardner Island and only survived for a short time, after which the plane was swept away into the deep waters nearby.

The privately funded half-million dollar effort is expected to begin in July and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged her support for the mission, revealing how Earhart was one of her childhood heroes.

"Her legacy resonates today for anyone, boys and girls, who dream for the stars," said Clinton, when she welcomed Tessie Lambourne, the foreign secretary of the island nation of Kiribati, during a state department event in Washington DC on Monday.

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"She embodied the spirit of an America coming of age. So here we are to mark a time that's particularly rich in symbolism and opportunity, like Amelia Earhart."

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