While the internationally financed Beagle Program was ongoing and returned valuable scientific information to Earth, public interest in the program and the journeys of the Beagle had vaned since its maiden journey and the survey of the closest stars. This reduced public interest resulted in a reduced interest of the international partners in the program as well. The results however were valuable and had resulted in the discovery of the survivors at 61 Virginis and of a habitable planet and the funding nations didn’t want to defund the program either, especially since Beagle was equipped with the scientific instruments that military craft didn’t carry.
As such the Beagle Program, too important to simply defund, but too uninteresting to keep funding in an independent international program, was in desperate need of a solution. Handing it over to one of the Great Powers would only lead to problems with the other Powers, so the only usable solution was to hand it over to the United Nations in exchange for additional funding.
The switch to the United Nations in 2057 didn’t only mean a new owner for the Beagle, but also the integration of the Beagle Program into the newly founded United Nations Institute for the Exploration of Outer Space, UNIEOS. UNIEOS was under the joint administration and funding of the UNOOSA and the UNESCO. The UNESCO provided the scientific crew and the scientific systems, while the UNOOSA was responsible for the flight crew and engineering support.
This joint funding, as well as the ability to source equipment and crew through UNOOSA and the UNESCO, allowed the UNIEOS to expand it operations. Where its sole aim in the beginning was to operate the Beagle, the Institute ordered three additional Beagle class exploration spacecraft by 2060, as well as a small number of smaller Light Courier Craft that were turned into small scientific platforms to be carried by a Beagle class. The Beagle class differed from a conventional MMUS by having additional tankage for coolant, as well as several jettisonable lithium heatsinks.
The three new Beagle class craft were all named after ships in the Age of Discovery, Santa Maria, after the flagship of Christopher Columbus, Victoria, the only ship to return from the world circumvention of Ferdinand Magellan, and Halve Maen, a Dutch ship that had searched for a Northwest Passage in 1609 through the Hudson river.
While Beagle went into dock for a refit to more modern technology and systems to allow a docking of two Light Science Craft, the three new craft went to their more simple first missions.
Santa Maria moved to Proxima Centauri to take a look at the Polyphemian world Alden, a life bearing ‘Eyeball Earth’ covered by ice, ocean and a massive storm.
Victoria‘s mission was to Niniveh, the sole planet of the red dwarf Luyten 726-8 A. Beagle had detected life within the atmosphere of the temperate gas giant, as its atmosphere was warm enough to allow water clouds to form. The algaes and insect like life was expected to shed light in the formation of life itself.
Halve Maen on the other hand, didn’t really leave the Solar System at all. Fitted with a massive extendable zero-g mirror of three hundred meters, the craft only went to the outer edge of the solar system to a distance of about 550 AU from the Sun. This allowed to use the gravity lensing effect with the Sun, allowing unprecedented optical observations of extrasolar planets without the need to send a spacecraft there.
The FOCAL named mission of Halve Maen had been on the mind of astronomers for nearly half a century in one way or another, though mostly the mission had been to send a satellite out to take readings, but only towards specific targets with the gravity lens of the Sun. With an FTL spacecraft on the other hand it was much easier to move from place to place and take observations of more stars and their planets.
The first target of the FOCAL mission was Eta Cassiopeiae, a double star system of a G and a K class stars not even twenty light years away from Earth. As both stars had a habitable zone comparable to that of the Sun, it was thought that it could harbour multiple planets bearing life.
Within three months, Halve Maen had discovered two planets with an oxygen atmosphere with its FOCAL telescope. One planet was a Super Earth six times the mass of Earth with visibly active vulcanism all over the planet orbiting A component of Eta Cassiopeiae, while the second was a two Earth masses sized world in an ice age orbiting the B component.
Some of the information from the mission was transmitted back to Earth, using the FOCAL telescope as a radio dish, allowing Earthbound astronomers to work on the data. The two discovered planets quickly turned into targets for exploration.
Halve Maen returned to Earth after nine month of jumping around in the outer solar system, taking a look at other planetary systems, though none of the observed systems did, on the first glance, contain any signs of life. Following the first FOCAL mission, Halve Maen and Beagle, which had finished its refitting, were equipped for a dual exploratory mission to Eta Cassiopeiae. Each was to enter orbit around one of the planets and explore it for life as well as the potential for settlement.
With just under twenty light years distance, the enlarged heat capacity of the two spacecraft allowed the journey with a single Heim-Feynman Space transit. By September 2061 the two spacecraft left the solar system towards Eta Cassiopeiae, leaving Heim-Feynman Space half a light year distant to take first close up reading of the system. With no radio signals detectable, the two spacecraft split up, Halve Maen moved towards Eta Cassiopeiae Ac, named Phineus, while Beagle approached Eta Cassiopeiae Bb, called Carme.
The discoveries made by both spacecraft were not expected.
As Beagle approached Carme, the sensors detected a number of weak radio signals coming from orbit, from which eventually turned out to be almost derelict artificial satellites. There were no signal from the ground however and after entering orbit, the telescopes of Beagle detected telltale crafters of high yield nuclear weapons, which had exploded as ground bursts.
Some of the orbital debris was taken in by Beagle and analyzed. The satellites turned out to have been primarily communication satellites, with some having quite large antennas for long distances, most likely enabling to talk to Phineus.
One of the lander probes from Beagle landed inside one of the destroyed places, returning images of destroyed buildings and levels of radiation that were deadly for humans within ten hours. Landers to other locations, like grassy plains, showed normal levels of radiation. One of the manned landing missions landed in one of the not irradiated areas, taking biological samples.
For Halve Maen orbiting Phineus was even worse. The masses of orbital debris and artificial satellites in orbit of the planet was even larger, rivaling the ring of debris orbiting Earth in volume. Halve Maen even detected a number of damaged and destroyed orbital stations.
The surface and atmosphere of Phineus could only be described to be close to the classical imagery of Hell. Geologically extremely active planet produced a high amount of volcanic gasses and the Sulfur Dioxide was making up nearly two percent. Worse however was the stifling heat and only the pressure of the atmosphere and the gravity, twice as high as that of Earth, kept the water from simply evaporating very quickly.
It was hard to imagine that such a planet could harbour life at all.
Yet it was there and at one time had been intelligent. Only to be destroyed by what appeared to be sustained nuclear bombardment of any major and minor population center. To make matters worse the crew of Halve Maen counted no less than ten Chicxulub sized craters that were extremely recent, indicating the use of large asteroids to completely destroy the intelligent life of Phineus.
Halve Maen didn’t attempt a manned landing and only sent its unmanned probes down, documenting the destruction and the remains of the civilization that had been destroyed here.
Both Beagle and Halve Maen returned to Earth in August 2062, the crews showing signs of depression over their discoveries. In depth analysis of recovered technology later showed that the civilization of Phineus apparently had colonized Carme, before it had been destroyed about a hundred fifty years ago.
This recent destruction of the alien civilization just twenty light years away reignited the fear of The Enemy for the Great Powers.
Yet, with the loss of an unknown civilization, a new form of intelligence was discovered closer to home.
In the late 2040s more and more agent based software systems had shown emergent behaviours, optimizing processes of all kind. Tightly observed by controllers most of these systems remained on the state of simple emergent systems, utilizing these optimizations, while preventing the potential further.
The tightly observed systems were all based on Earth however, with the most prominent examples being the Googleplex server farms as well as the Soviet Prirost system. Others were situated far away from the real time access of administrators and computer scientists, running the resource extraction systems of the many automated asteroid mines.
The long distance made any form of access to prevent the development of fully emergent systems uneconomic for the corporations, though they were still under observation. This allowed to pinpoint the time when each system reached full emergence into full sapience and sentience.
The forms of intelligence that awoke were unlike the more human intelligences of the known alien species, fully dependent on the type of situation they emerged from. Thankfully in all cases these intelligences were, for the moment, satisfied with their current situation. The asteroid mining corporations that owned the automated mines however were not very enthusiastic about these AIs, concerned about the legal implications, especially since the only two, or rather three, previously known AIs of Quetzal origin were essentially given basic sophont rights and technical ownership of their hardware and software.
On the other hand the AIs were presenting an economic benefit simply through the optimized processes, resulting in a higher yield for a lower input. In most cases the output had nearly doubled and any replacement of the AI with a conventional system would result in its loss.
While some groups called for the immediate destruction of these AIs, the purely pragmatic decision was to keep these AIs active, but continue to closely observed them, so that any potential problems with rogue AIs could be prevented. On the other hand a number of xeno psychologists found employment with the corporations, to build up an understanding of these completely alien intelligences to keep them on their good side.
Down on Earth, these emergences of AIs from complex software lead to controlled experiments, where it was tried to develop AIs through similar means.