New forensic imaging techniques might solve the longstanding mystery over the fate of Amelia Earhart, whose plane vanished over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.

At the center of sophisticated imaging techniques are a handful of 1937 pictures of Earhart’s twin-engined Lockheed "Electra." Those were taken in Miami -- the fourth stop on the aviator’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe -- and show a distinctive patch of metal installed to replace a navigational window.

According to researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart 77 years ago, the metal sheeting appears to match a piece of aluminum recovered in 1991 from Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati.

PHOTOS: Jars Hint at Amelia Earhart as Castaway

“If the enhancement of the photograph is good enough to establish that the rivet patterns on the repair match those on the piece of aluminum we found on Nikumaroro, then we have an artifact found on Nikumaroro that is conclusively linked to Amelia Earhart,” Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.

The forensic 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, which is some 350 miles southeast of Howland Island.

PHOTOS: Inside the Search for Amelia Earhart

Called 2-2-V-1 by TIGHAR researchers, the battered sheet of aluminum has been the subject of intense investigation since its discovery in the vegetation of Nikumaroro.

The 19-inch-wide by 23-inch-long sheet is made of a product introduced by Alcoa Aluminum in 1933 known as “24ST Alclad.”

Although Earhart’s plane was skinned with this material, it wasn’t possible for TIGHAR researchers to fit the 2-2-V-1 sheet anywhere on a Lockheed Electra.

“During our research at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in March, we learned that the artifact doesn't fit anywhere on the original or repaired parts of Earhart's Electra. I thought that was the end of it,” Gillespie said.

PHOTOS: Amelia Earhart's Fate Reconstructed

The investigation took another twist when TIGHAR researcher Jeffrey Neville, an experienced aircraft mechanic, noted that one part of the aircraft wasn't built or repaired by Lockheed.

“It was the patch that was installed in Miami,” Gillespie said.

Why the navigational window was replaced with a patch remains unknown.

“There is a great deal of information available about what Earhart did during her eight-day stay in Miami, but nowhere is there any mention of replacing the window with a patch -- and yet it clearly happened,” Gillespie said.

This in-flight photo, taken by the captain of a Netherlands East Indies (KNILM) DC-2 airliner that accompanied the Electra for a short time over Java, shows the sheet of metal installed to replace a navigational window.TIGHAR

TIGHAR speculates that the hard landing made by Earhart upon her arrival in Miami on May 23, 1937, may have caused the fuselage to flex enough to crack the window.

“With no time to order a new window to be specially made, they may have decided to just replace it with a simple patch,” Gillespie said.

The possibility that Earhart and Noonan made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro was examined by the Navy in the first days following the flight's disappearance.

“They did search the atoll, but only from the air," Gillespie said.

Earhart's Final Resting Place Believed Found

In 10 archaeological expeditions to Nikumaroro, Gillespie and his team uncovered a number of artifacts which, combined with archival research, provide strong circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence.

“We found archival records describing the discovering on Nikumaroro in 1940 of the partial skeleton and campsite of what appears to have been a female castaway," Gillespie said.

"We identified the place on a remote corner of the atoll that fits the description of where the bones and campsite were found. Archaeological digs there have produced artifacts that speak of an American woman of the 1930s," Gillespie said.

He added that evidence on the island would also suggest that Earhart survived as a castaway "for a matter of weeks, possibly more."

Amelia Earhart May Have Survived Months as Castaway

Other clues came from another photograph of Nikumaroro's western shoreline taken three months after Earhart's disappearance. It showed an unexplained object protruding from the water on the fringing reef.

Forensic imaging analyses of the photo suggested that the shape and dimension of the object are consistent with the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra.

An “anomaly” that might possibly be the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's aircraft emerged from analysis of the sonar imagery captured off Nikumaroro during TIGHAR’s last expedition.

Amelia Earhart's Finger Bone Recovered?

According to the researchers, a possible scenario is that the airplane was washed over the reef edge and broke up in the surf, scattering torn aluminum sheets, which was then carried off by ocean forces. Some of the torn aluminium apparently later washed up on the island -- the 2-2-V-1 sheet being one of them.

“At this time, we can’t say the repair of metal sheeting matches the Nikumaroro aluminium. It’s another hypothesis to be tested. We've been disappointed before and we may be disappointed again, but the potential is there for the proof that everyone has been looking for,” Gillespie said.

A new expedition to search for pieces of Earhart's plane is scheduled to take place in mid-September, mid-October. The probe will rely on two manned submersibles, each carrying a pilot, a TIGHAR observer and an ocean scientist.