The hunt for Amelia Earhart‘s plane is reaching new heights.
The search, sponsored by National Geographic, kicked off on August 7. Explorers have been looking for any signs of Earhart since she and her navigator Fred Noonan went missing in July of 1937 (her husband, George Putnam, hired searchers after the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard’s search), but Ballard’s immense technological resources and successful track record is giving the pursuit a renewed sense of energy.
“There are various theories about where Amelia’s plane landed, and some of them are a little wild,” Ballard said in a National Geographic feature published on Monday. “We’re going with the one that she actually landed.”
One of the leading theories about Earhart’s disappearance (the one that Ballard and his team are pursuing) is that when trying to land on the tiny Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean, she and Noonan instead landed on the nearby island of Nikumaroro.
The theory, which The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has been investigating for decades, is largely based off of Earhart’s last recognizable radio transmissions, which indicated “that the plane was flying on a northwest to southeast navigational line that bisected Howland Island,” according to NatGeo.
Nikumaroro is southeast of Howland Island, while there is nothing but open Pacific waters to the northwest.
Although TIGHAR researchers have visited Nikumaroro 13 times in pursuit of the Electra, Ballard’s technological tools are a level-up.
Ballard’s ship, the E/V Nautilus, is decked out with “a multi-beam sonar on the hull, two [remotely operated vehicles (ROVs)] with high definition cameras, an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV), and multiple drones,” NatGeo‘s report said.
“Everything I ever found was found visually,” Ballard said. ROV pilots take turns in four-hour shifts patrolling the seascape, “looking for colors that aren’t natural to the background.”
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The work is both meticulous and slow, as anything captured by an ROV must wait to be examined until the vehicles are recovered.
While ROV pilots did discover some wreckage on the first night of the search, the debris was from oceanographic equipment left by previous explorers.
Ballard doesn’t seem to worried about false alarms, however, telling NatGeo, “We did this nine days for the Titanic.“
The story of Ballard’s search will be told in a two-hour National Geographic documentary, Expedition Amelia, set to premiere on October 20.