What awaits us
December 8, 2013
An oxygen atmosphere is observed on a relatively nearby exoplanet in the habitable zone. The SETI program is made aware of the discovery and points its resources at the planet and there is clear evidence of a technological civilization, but apparently only slightly behind current capabilities. Over the next century a large spacecraft is constructed to send an emissary to the planet to explore and make contact with the intelligent life that is there.
Because of advances in technology, it will be a mission with a crew, as suspended animation is perfected.
From the crews perspective they go to sleep and then they wake up the next day a year out from arrival as was the plan. When they awake the transmissions that were once observed are absent, and they receive no reply from their broadcasts that they have designed based on the observed signals from the SETI program.
They turn their sensors on the planet, and observe a planet with a runaway greenhouse effect and low levels of oxygen. There is no evidence of a technological society. When they get to the planet a year later, the only evidence seen of a civilization is what appears to be a base on the planet's satellite. A robotic probe is launched to observe the base, and find what appear to be the creatures that inhabited the base, all dead. They find what appears to be some sort of symbol, probably an emblem signifying the group the people belonged to, a red rectangle with five yellow stars in one corner.
It is not clear why a civilization would destroy its own planet, but this one apparently did. After a decade of exploration the expedition concludes that this race didn't have the wisdom to have a functional space exploration program to propagate itself, or to maintain its precious ecosystem.
The planet is seeded with robotic tenders to try to bring the planet back to a state where it can one day be a resource for a future generation, and the expedition prepares for its return, sad at the realization that a technological civilization would choose self destruction over exploration and expansion.
They wonder why they had never seen this before in other civilizations that they have contacted, and conclude that a civilization that would do this to its own planet probably would not be worth engaging.
In 2016, The Planetary Society’s LightSail program will take the technology a step further.