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‘No smoking gun’: Calgary scientists studying Mars soil for signs it supported life


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CALGARY — A University of Calgary scientist is hoping to determine whether Mars was ever capable of supporting life.

Ben Tutolo, an associate professor in the Department of Geoscience and Faculty of Science, began his research earlier this year and is using data from the Curiosity rover that’s been exploring the Red Planet for the past decade.

The Canadian Space Agency, as part of the NASA-led Mars Science Laboratory mission, is funding the three-year study.

“The mission is to follow the water and understand — were ancient environments on other planets, like Mars, habitable?” said Tutolo, who is conducting the research alongside professor Steve Larter and associate professor Rachel Lauer.

“What we’re doing with the Curiosity rover is exploring the rock record there (to) understand if these rocks at that time were ultimately habitable.”

Tutolo said Curiosity has been providing a steady stream of data and has been collecting and analyzing samples as it slowly makes its way up Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater.

The rover, which had travelled almost 28 kilometres as of May 1, has multiple analyzers that can determine the chemistry and mineralogy of the rocks or soil surface on Mars. Its Canadian-made Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer has analyzed 1,211 samples and sent 2,659 results back to Earth.

“It’s scooping up, drilling samples … it can utilize in situ like a roving geologist who would also have a geochemical laboratory in the field,” Tutolo said.

The focus of the research is to study the geological transition from the oldest lake sediments where Curiosity began its exploration to younger layers of sediment farther up.

Tutolo said the geological evidence from the oldest rocks in the crater show they are from a river-fed lake that contained water.

The newer specimens have found magnesium sulphate salts, which were likely the result of the water evaporating as the planet became drier, he said.

“Obviously the transition has happened. There are no oceans or lakes on the planet today,” Tutolo said.

He said the team is also conducting field research at the Basque Lakes near Cache Creek, B.C., which contain the same sulphate minerals found on Mount Sharp on Mars.

However, Tutolo said the fact that the Mars crater is 3.5 billion years old means there might not be a definite answer to whether life did exist there.

“They have all been degraded in some ways. They’ve all been transformed by the geological processes working overtime in the crater so … there will be no smoking gun,” Tutolo said.

But he said if the rock record shows it was theoretically habitable, then it can still answer some questions.

“If it was habitable, then we could start putting together scenarios for how life could have originated in such an environment and if it did originate, how it could potentially thrive in such an environment,” he said.

“I think what we can do as objective scientists is read the story that is written in the rocks and understand and lay the foundation and paint the picture of whether it was possible.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2022.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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E3 Lithium gets $37M from feds to support oilfield lithium extraction

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CALGARY — An Alberta-based company aiming to extract lithium from the province’s old oilfields has received $37 million from the federal government.

E3 Lithium has developed a technology to extract lithium, a light metal used to make EV batteries, from oilfield brines.

E3 Lithium has already drilled test wells within Alberta’s historic Leduc oilfield region. It aims to have a field pilot project up and running next year.

Imperial Oil Ltd. has also invested in E3 Lithium and is providing technical and development support for the company.

The federal government has identified lithium as a focus of its $3.8-billion, eight-year critical minerals strategy.

The goal is to create a domestic supply chain for electric vehicles, boosting the economy while tackling greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2022.

Companies in this story: (TSX:TKTK)

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CannTrust execs linked to unlicensed growing caused ‘incredible’ damage, court hears

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TORONTO — A lawyer representing Ontario’s securities regulator says three former executives whose cannabis company was caught growing pot in unlicensed rooms were in positions to disclose the improper growing but didn’t. 

Dihim Emami, a lawyer for the Ontario Securities Commission, said in a Toronto court today that by not disclosing the unlicensed growing at CannTrust Holdings Inc., Peter Aceto, Eric Paul and Mark Litwin caused “incredible” damage to investors.

The three men have pleaded not guilty to a series of securities offences linked to the unlicensed growing at a Niagara, Ont. region facility, including fraud and authorizing, permitting or acquiescing in the commission of an offence.

Litwin and Paul are also facing insider trading charges, and Litwin and Aceto are charged with making a false prospectus and false preliminary prospectus.

The charges were first laid by the OSC in June 2021, around the same time executives told shareholders the Vaughan, Ont. company was compliant with regulations. 

The three men no longer work for CannTrust, which is now called Phoena Holdings Inc., and maintain they have always complied with the law.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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