Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New role for asbestos mine

Experts conduct simulated Mars mission

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MONTREAL -- Canada's last asbestos mine, now winding down its operations, may have a new 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 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 keep operating but the newly elected Parti Québécois cancelled the loan.

The simulated Mars mission, on the whole, cost $800,000 -- and some local officials weren't aware of the project.

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

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," Cloutis said.

Methane gas, which can be found at the 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 two kilometres and 350 metres deep, was one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. The mine hosts serpentinite, a rock 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 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. Cloutis was joined by other scientists from McGill University, Carleton University and the University of Toronto.

Their initial site is looking even more desolate and Mars-like than usual, these days. The new Parti Québécois provincial government has cancelled a $58-million loan, which would have kept the controversial industry alive. Asbestos town councillor Serge Boislard says that, since the cancellation, the number of personnel at the mine has dropped to about 20 workers who are only doing basic maintenance and providing security.

He says the last of the mine's managers and engineers were laid off several weeks ago. He recalls the days when the mine employed 2,000 people, before the international pressure mounted to ban asbestos because of its links to cancer.

The Mars project got rolling when the Canadian Space Agency contracted MPB's space division to develop the "analogue" mission.

Wes Jamroz of MPB Communications says the Jeffrey Mine has a bright future as a Mars substitute. "This mine is a very real environment to practice future deployment on Mars because you have the same rocks (and) you have the same environment," he said.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2012 A14

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