Canada’s last asbestos mine may have future as Mars stand-in – by Peter Rakobowchuk (Globe and Mail – November 25, 2012)

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MONTREAL — The Canadian Press – Canada’s last asbestos mine, now winding down its operations, may have a new celestial calling — as a stand-in for planet Mars. Quebec’s Jeffrey Mine hosted nearly two-dozen scientists recently for a simulated Mars mission initiated by Canada’s space agency.

The scientists from four universities made a pair of trips to the Asbestos region, this year and last year, accompanied by a micro-rover. “There are definitely areas (on Mars) that are much more like what we have at Jeffrey Mine,” said Ed Cloutis, a University of Winnipeg professor who participated in the project. The new vocation won’t exactly replace the once-mighty asbestos industry as an economic lifeblood for the region.

The mine had been counting on a $58-million government loan to renovate and keep operating. The simulated Mars mission, on the whole, cost $800,000 — and some local officials, including an alderman and the town’s director general, didn’t even appear to be aware of the project when contacted by The Canadian Press.

The goal of the project was to simulate as closely as possible a Mars rover mission to detect the presence of, and determine the source of, methane on Mars.

Prof. Cloutis, an expert in planetary geology, said the scientific missions to the Asbestos region could be Canada’s ticket to future trips to the red planet.

“One way to search for life on Mars (is) you look at the gases that might be produced or used as a food source by bacteria on Mars,” Prof. Cloutis said in an interview.

Methane gas, which can be found at mine on the edge of the town of Asbestos, is one of two key indicators of life. The other is water.

Jeffrey, with a diameter of over two kilometres and 350 metres deep, was one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. The mine hosts serpentinite, a rock which is prone to bacteria — the ultimate life form. Methane gas is a byproduct of bacteria.

Methane has already been detected in the Martian atmosphere and scientists are hoping NASA’s Curiosity rover will find it on the planet.

The Asbestos project was spearheaded by MPB Communications Inc., a Montreal-area firm and the prime contractor, which also developed a micro-rover named Kapvik. The waist-high rover, whose robotic arm was developed by engineers at Ryerson University, was put to work during the research.

The mission employed a team of about 20 people at Jeffrey Mine in June, 2011 and again at nearby Norbestos, in June, 2012, while the Canadian Space Agency in Longueuil, Que., acted as mission control.

Prof. Cloutis was joined on the project by other scientific investigators from McGill University, Carleton University and the University of Toronto.

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