The planet Mars may have had life forms vastly different from Earth’s, that emerged from deep beneath the Martian surface billions of years ago, and are based on DNA, genes and proteins that are unlike anything found on Earth.

NASA’s Christopher McKay says if there was life on early Mars (even if there isn?t any there now), it means life should be possible throughout the solar system in unimaginable forms.

David Perlman writes in San Francisco Chronicle that water first rained down on the newly-formed Earth from comets and meteors 4.9 billion years ago and that massive impacts a billion years later brought organic chemicals to our planet. All this time, Earth was getting warmer and wetter.

Mars might not have been at all like that, but it still could have developed life. “A very cold Mars is by no means an uninteresting place for life to begin,” McKay says. The problem with astronomers is that they only look for one kind of life?the kind that developed in the warm, wet atmosphere of Earth.

We know that liquid water has been found beneath the ice in Antarctica, and the same thing could be true of Mars. “Ice on Mars, with the water beneath it, is a huge empty niche for life to form in totally new ways,” McKay says. “What we need to do in future Mars missions is to drill beneath the permafrost, beneath the frozen sediments and find a totally different watery niche?cold old gazpacho instead of warm chicken soup. Instead of hunting for fossils in the rocks of Mars, we should be looking for corpses in the cold water?bodies that started out as entirely different forms of life.”

As space probes head for Mars, scientists are still debating about whether or not we’ll find life?or signs of past life?on the planet. Hazel Muir writes in New Scientist that they now think Mars is red, not because liquid water rusted its rocks, but from the dust of tiny meteors falling on its surface.

They know the red is caused by iron oxide and thought that iron in rocks dissolved into pools and rivers, evaporated and turned into rain, which was then distributed all over the planet. But NASA has found that the iron is mostly in the topsoil and not in the rocks, suggesting that it actually came from iron-rich meteors.

“There is something of a paradox about Mars,” says astronomer Joshua Bandfield, who discovered that Mars does not have deposits of carbonates, which should have formed if giant pools of water were once on the surface. He thinks liquid water may have been underground and that it burst out of the ground at times, carving channels and gullies, but quickly freezing again in the cold Martian climate. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be life there. “There appears to be quite a bit more living going on in the Amazon rainforest than in the dry valleys of Antarctica, he says. “But if the question is whether or not life exists in either climate, the answer is yes to both.”

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