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US joins search for Amelia Earhart remains after new photo analysis

Seventy-five years after the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lending her support to a new investigation into the mystery surrounding the famed aviator's final flight. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.

WASHINGTON -- Following new analysis of a photo that could show wreckage of Amelia Earhart's plane, the Obama administration on Tuesday said it was backing a search this summer to hopefully solve the mystery of America's greatest female aviator.

"We can be as optimistic and even audacious as Amelia Earhart," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., to announce U.S. support for the expedition. "There is great honor and possibility in the search itself."

The search by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery will focus on the remote island of Nikumaroro, in what is now the Pacific nation of Kiribati.

The group believes Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan might have managed to land on the island, then known as Gardner Island, and that they could have survived for a short time after disappearing on July 2, 1937.

Other historians believe they crashed into the ocean. But conspiracy theories, including claims that they were U.S. government agents captured by the Japanese before World War II, abound despite having been largely debunked.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery

This 1937 photo was presented Tuesday as having been analyzed by experts to reveal an object in the water, not easily visible at this scale, showing what might be the landing gear and a wheel from an aircraft.

New analysis of a photo taken at Nikumaroro three months after the disappearance shows what some people believe could be a strut and wheel of the plane protruding from the water, the group says. State Department analysts helped examine the photo.

The hypothesis is that the plane crashed on a reef before eventually being washed deeper into the sea.

The group hopes that probes down the reef slope will reveal larger aircraft parts such as the engines lying in a dim "twilight zone" about 300 yards below the ocean surface.

A photo taken just three months after Earhart disappeared may provide new evidence of famed aviator's plight. The group that plans to conduct the deepwater search believes her airplane is still recoverable. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.

Renowned oceanographer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreckage of the Titanic and the Bismarck and is advising the Earhart expedition, said the new analysis of the photograph could be the equivalent of a "smoking gun" as it narrows the search area from tens of thousands of square miles to a manageable size.

In 2010, bone fragments were found on the island that the group believes might be of Earhart or Noonan. Other artifacts have been recovered there as well that suggest the two might have lived for days or weeks after landing on a reef.

The privately funded group is putting up $500,000 for the search. The U.S. won't provide money but will offer limited logistical support. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood joined Clinton at the ceremony.

Ric Gillespie, the executive director of the group, said the new search is scheduled to last for 10 days in July and will use state-of-the-art underwater robotic submarines and mapping equipment. The Discovery Channel will film the expedition for a television documentary, he said. He acknowledged that the evidence was circumstantial but "strong" but stopped well short of predicting success.

Discovery of bones and other artifacts on a remote island have proven inconclusive in the search of famed pilot Amelia Earhart. NBC's Janet Shamlian has the story.

"The most important thing is not whether we find the ultimate answer or what we find, it is the way we look," he said. "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."

"Back in 1937, in the painful recovery from the Great Depression, Amelia Earhart's courage and determination inspired the American people," he added. "Well, hard times are here again and we need that type of courage and determination again ... we're going to try our best to find her, not for ourselves, but for you," the public.

Details about the planned expedition
Explainer: Earhart and other famous mysteries

The expedition will coincide with the 75th anniversary of Earhart's departure on the ill-fated attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world.

NBC's Catherine Chomiak and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

More than 70 years after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific during her around-the-world flight, documents and photos are being released that shed new light on one of aviation's greatest mysteries. NBC's Chuck Henry reports.

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