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In the question, Weapons for a civilisation-destroying giant robot, I asked about what weapons might be mounted on a giant snakebot over 1 km in diameter and over 9km long, equipped with six fusion reactors. It was mentioned in one of the answers that it might be noticed - even in Antarctica - that something this big was being built.

The snakebot is being built by a large number of self-replicating engineering nanobots powered for the most part by the mineral reserves of the continent as well as fusion power from the snakebot's reactors as construction progresses.

The engineering nanites were delivered by a ballistic-descent module with a total volume of around 100 liters and massing about 250kg. The module provides power for initial nanite replication and resource location, during which time the nanites build their own additional power supplies.

Construction is taking place under the thickest portion of the East Antarctic ice-cap, beneath 2-3 kilometres of ice. No significant change in the elevation of the surface ice will take place.

The nanites and their power supplies are highly efficient, and they are exercising heat-management procedures that spread the heat generated by their activities over an area of well over a hundred square kilometres of the antarctic ice cap centred over the construction site, as well as lower levels of temperature rise over a much wider area where the nanites are mining for resources.

The detectable signs of construction might be a rise in the temperature of the surface ice by a few degrees over a large area, as well as an increase in the rate of ice flow toward the edge of the ice sheet, plus the fact that there is a huge metal object being constructed deep under the ice.

Construction will take place over eight years, plus or minus two years, and heat production will rise steadily to its maximum level over the first third of the construction time, and will only fall off slightly when construction is completed and the snakebot begins to move.

We can assume that if the delivery package was observed in its ballistic descent, it would appear to be a meteorite of a size that wouldn't warrant investigation in an area as remote and inhospitable as central Antarctica.

The question(s):

  1. Am I correct in assuming that the arrival of the delivery package would not be investigated?

  2. What is the liklihood that construction of the snakebot would be noticed by humans, even if it is not known what is causing the observed changes? What changes might be observed first?

  3. What response might be mustered by humans to investigate the observed changes in Antarctica? How long might it take to begin investigating, how long could such an investigation be expected to take, and what personnel would respond?

  4. Is it possible for humans to conclude that a giant robot is being built by nanites (that are reasonably intelligent and self-destruct if captured, and so aren't likely to be directly observed) within the 6-10 year timespan that construction will take?

  5. If it is concluded by the investigators that a giant robot is being constructed before such time as the robot is completed, what response might be mustered and how long would that response take?

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  • $\begingroup$ Nuke the robot! Oh, wait, nukes won't go that deep :( $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Feb 27 '16 at 4:11
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon, Sure you could. Just drill a bore hole through the ice and drop it in. The trouble comes when the thing doesn't detonate when its timer runs out, since the nanites would have noticed it coming and would have disabled it in the time the people deploying it would leave themselves to clear the area. You tell me that people dropping a high-megaton-range nuke down an Antarctic borehole wouldn't leave themselves time to get well clear before it blows. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Feb 27 '16 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ I remember that snake bot question... and there is something I still wondering about: where your nanos will find these resources needed for construction? Especially Boron, which was needed for that nifty armor. Finding all below Antarctica? So the nanos need to look somewhere else. What may draw attention too. $\endgroup$ – Confused Merlin Feb 29 '16 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ @ConfusedMerlin, Boron is found in fossil fuels such as coal and oil, of which there is thought to be quite a lot in Antarctica. The nanites are drawing from an entire continent beneath the ice. I had thought of Osmium-Iridium armour (for its high density), but those two metals are too rare. Tungsten-Uranium armour with a boron-carbide coating is also rareish, but not excessively so. It's within the bounds of possibility AFAIK. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Mar 1 '16 at 0:50
  • $\begingroup$ @ConfusedMerlin, have a look at earthmagazine.org/article/…. Antarctica appears to have an abundance of borates. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Mar 1 '16 at 0:58
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Regarding 1) There are projects to collect meteorites in Antarctica. They might (or might not) take an interest.

Regarding 3) The initial assumption would be that this is a natural event. I expect concerned climate scientists, not alien hunters.

This might help regarding 2) as well. Perhaps some oil company seizes on the weird readings to discredit climate models, and polar explorers take a closer look for that reason. Or talking about the "antarctic heat anomaly" puts you into the tinfoil hat category and nobody bothers to check.

Regarding 4) With sufficient motivation, we should be able to recognize the wreckage of self-destructed nanites as weird and non-natural.

Regarding 5) Xandar is wrong in his comment to the OP. If one isn't enough, send several.

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  • $\begingroup$ My reading of the website about the Antarctic meteorite program is that it appears to be a surface sweep of snow-free ice for small meteorites that have migrated through the ice sheet over many millennia, not a bunch of meteorite chasers following that fireball they saw descending yesterday. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Feb 27 '16 at 13:54
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If you really want to stay undetected, putting this thing directly into the ice is not really what you should do. At least, not as a point of impact.

Sure, if you can bring it down during a severe blizzard in white-out conditions, no one will actually see it with their own eyes; but you are trying to remain undetected for 8 years. Between various military and scientific efforts at monitoring and documentation, someone is going to notice the change in level - they have instruments accurate to fractions of a millimeter for gauging changes in total ice mass, and something is bound to come up wrong.

There are also periodic airborne under-ice surveys utilizing some neat laser scanning tech to check the contour of ice above and below the sheet, gauging the mass even more accurately (of course I managed to forget the name of the operations and I can't check to see if they still have funding).

If that's not enough, there is an international cooperative of naval and coast guard forces working in much of the area.

The way forward then is a night time splash down into deep waters. If these things can build a snake bot under ice that hard, crawling through water first should be no issue. If they can crack rocks that would be even better - as long as the bore hole is small enough, it is likely to be ignored, even on sonar reviews of sea charts, simply because no one is particularly worried about the exact mass of rock near the sheet.

Realistically, any investigation would not get the funding for the tools necessary to determine the existence of snakebot inside of 8 years. This is especially true if you take the rock path sideways to the build site - any reasonable scientist would balk at the idea of sending a cable camera many kilometers sideways and down, especially if the bore hole just so happened to conveniently collapse in several places on the way.

Assuming the worst, a breakthrough device that I'm not sure can exist sees directly through the ice and spots snakebot. If that happens, and if it's purpose can be divined, there will be many questions about whether the planet can withstand have a several kilometers thick sheet of ice instantaneously vaporized. I'll say probably not - water vapor is a tremendously effective greenhouse gas. Nuking the thing may not be an option, but it may also be the only option. Depending on time left, the best bet is probably to field low-orbit kinetic penetrator weapons and hope for the best.

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  • $\begingroup$ The nanites would pull their delivery package (with it's reactor) down beneath the surface, and new ice would form above it. It might be difficult in Antarctic conditions to tell that the meteorite wasn't an ice meteorite. As for kinetic penetrators, punching one through all that ice would require a truly huge chunk of metal to have any decent amount of kinetic energy left after it punches through a couple of kilometres of ice. Nobody has ever launched something that big that I'm aware of. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Feb 27 '16 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild, I'm not sure it has to be all that big. It may be enough to disrupt the ice sheet so that the build site collapses and suffers a hydraulic shock - or at least the well meaning protagonist can hope that will buy them some time. If it can survive having the ice cap dropped on it and hammered, the only real solution becomes vaporization a la nuke it to high hell and pray. $\endgroup$ – Sean Boddy Feb 27 '16 at 15:54

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