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Saturday, April 12, 2003

Life on Mars Not Carbon-Based?

Diagram of a cell.
Diagram of a cell.
Credit: The Online Biology Book, Estrella Mountain Community College
Everyone knows that life is made up of cells, and that the basic element that lets us be who we are is carbon. But just because it's like that on Earth doesn't mean that it has to be on Mars.

If the life that we hope to find on Mars evolved completely independently, it may also be completely different from life on Earth. After all, no one really knows what really happened to make life on Earth, and no one really knows if the conditions on Mars have ever been like they were once on Earth billions of years ago.

It is in this line of thought that the European Space Agency is approaching the instrumentation for the upcoming ExoMars mission. The ESA is now accepting idea submissions for instruments that might be useful not just in finding life that would be like us, but life based on altogether different principles. This is possibly the most difficult part of the entire project, as it involves predicting what something no one has ever seen is like on a different planet.

The United States, not to be outdone, is also pursuing the search for so-called "weird life." The National Research Council's Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life is seeking suggestions on the same subject. Unlike the ESA, which is already going to send the ExoMars mission, the committee not only has to come up with innovative ideas, but then persuade NASA to use them.

Were weird life to be found on Mars, it would literally change almost everything known about biology. The benefits to genetic research would most likely be extraordinary as well. More importantly, such a discovery would change the very nature of how we think about the universe. After all, if life can be so diverse in the only two planets we have ever looked for it on, then the possibilities for the entire universe are mind-boggling.

(More info: The Globe and Mail, The Scientist, ESA, National Research Council's Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life)

- posted by Brian @ 13:24 EST