Juice on Jupiter?

The European space agency is plotting an expensive, high profile robotic mission to study Jupiter and its moon system. With dozens of moons, Jupiter can be considered as a mini solar system in its own right. By using the Jovian system as a model, astronomers hope to gain information about how the solar system was formed and behaves. The mission has been designated as "JUICE".

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Unfortunately, the launch window for this mission does not open until 2022, one decade from now. Given Europe's financial problems, it is entirely possible that the mission will eventually be scrapped, or not even begun at all. This would be a shame. Currently, there is simply no way to send people to Jupiter, so we must make do with robots. Given the expense and complexity of sending a robot to Jupiter, it makes sense to send a very capable one to take as much data as possible. The funds to accomplish this, at least right now, can only come from public space agencies; private organizations, no matter how passionate they might be, are unlikely to find the cash needed for such a mission.

Curiously though, robot space exploration could be made cheaper by sending more robots. It sounds counter intuitive, but consider: if you are sending one robot on a years long mission hundreds of millions of miles away, then that robot cannot fail. It must be 100% reliable. Given the harsh environment it will operate in, achieving that level of reliability is incredibly expensive. Only the best materials and construction techniques can be used. Every system must have built in redundancies. Everything must be checked and tested many times.

Conversely, if several identical robots were sent, then not all of them would have to make it. If you sent five robots to Jupiter, but only needed one to actually arrive, the mission would actually be cheaper. If you were willing to sacrifice four of the robots, then each robot could be much less reliable. Achieving 80% reliability out of a robot might be an order of magnitude cheaper than achieving 100%. Thus, the cost for each robot would be far cheaper, and the overall mission cost would be much lower.

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