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.
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 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.
Cloutis was joined on the project by other scientific investigators 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 Quebecois provincial government has cancelled a $58 million loan, which would have kept the controversial industry alive. Cancelling that loan, signed in July by the former Liberal government, was a PQ election promise.
Asbestos town councillor Serge Boislard says that, since the cancellation, the number of personnel at the mine has dropped down 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 that mine employed about 2,000 people — back in the industry's heyday, before the international pressure mounted to ban asbestos because of its links to cancer.
"It would take a miracle to reopen the mine in the coming years," he said. Like some other local officials, Boislard hadn't heard of the Mars project.
The effort got rolling when the Canadian Space Agency contracted MPB's space division to develop the so-called "analogue" mission.
Wes Jamroz, the director of MPB Communications, says the Jeffrey Mine has a bright future as a Mars subsitute.
"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 in an interview.
"During these two deployments we were able to find out that there were natural traces of methane as well, so you have all the factors that you need."
Jamroz suggests the Quebec project might even, in some ways, be on a more promising track than NASA's famous Curiosity rover.
He says the huge NASA lab is using laser-based instruments to "sniff" for methane on rocks and cracks, which mixes very quickly with the atmosphere.
"The chances of sniffing things, and that you are going to find an opening, are very low — but this is my opinion," Jamroz said.
He says the tests carried out in Quebec indicate it would be much more effective to look for certain kinds of rocks and cracks on the Martian surface.
"You have a set of cameras that can recognize certain geological features and you go to the spot and then you measure methane," he said.
Jamroz also said using his small micro-rover for a future Mars mission would be far less expensive than Curiosity, which is the size of a small SUV.
"Remember, Curiosity weighs one ton and the rover we are playing with is between 30 and 40 kilos," he said. "We estimate that this kind of mission, with international co-operation from partners like the Brits and Americans, you can do it with $100 million instead of several billion."
NASA says Curiosity, which weighs 900 kilograms, cost $2.5 billion.
Cloutis told a recent Canadian space summit in London, Ont., that his group is lobbying for additional rover trials at Asbestos.
"Our rationale is that the moon and Mars will continue to be targets of interest for the deployment of rovers," he said.
"In terms of waving the Canadian flag, if we have all this great experience, we'll be better positioned to participate in some of these (future) international missions."