After more than 30 years of searching, as well as five landings on Mars, scientists claim they have finally discovered life on the red planet – but it is not life as we know it.
The researchers say their find is almost unbelievable and are calling for a rethink of how biology is seen on Earth and across the universe.
The life they have identified is a new computer virus that has infected NASA’s car-sized robotic explorer, Curiosity. The virus appears to be a remnant species that may have evolved from robots that once inhabited Mars.
Speaking at a conference where she announced the discovery, team leader Professor June Wiseman said that the find should not come as a total surprise.
“We are exploring the universe using robots, rather than flesh-and-blood astronauts, so it makes sense that other civilisations have done the same,” she said.
“Very few planets have the necessary conditions for life - consistent temperature, atmosphere and availability of water. But many planets could support robot life.”
Philosophers and scientists have long predicted that, just as mammals took over from the dinosaurs on Earth, artificial intelligence and robotic life could one day replace humans.
“Robotic life has the capacity to expand across the universe much more quickly and widely than soft tissue organisms,” said Professor Wiseman.
“The landers that we have put on Mars have spent too much time looking for soft tissue life when they should have been looking for software and hardware. Now that we have found the software, the hunt for robotic skeletons will begin in earnest.”
Other researchers have been inspired by the discovery on Mars and are searching for alien life closer to home.
"A lot of people are surprised by the number of pointless computer viruses found on earth,” said IT expert Professor May Jove.
“We've been monitoring these viruses, and there are too many to be explained by normal theories. We need to be asking how many of them have extra-terrestrial origins – and whether we should be disconnecting our phones, or be standing by ready for ET to phone home,” she said.
One team of researchers has even set up a bank of new computers – completely unprotected by anti-viral software – in order to attract hungry viruses that may be out there somewhere in the universe.
“I do this all the time,” said one of the students, April Youngster. “You’d be surprised at some of the unexpected but promising lower lifeforms I’ve already detected here on Earth.”
For more information watch the announcement on the conference website.