With a journey time of several years, the trek to Jupiter is a long one, even longer than Mars, which can take up to nine months. And when you arrive, exploring it isn't much easier. Unlike Mars, rovers are out of the question, as there's nothing for a rover to land on; the planet is notoriously made of fast-moving streams of gas. Fortunately, this isn't enough to stop scientists from thinking up ingenious ways of sending some sort of machine to live on Jupiter for a little while.
Robotics designers have been compiling their ideas about how to send a robot that measures properties of the Jovian atmosphere. These designers want to push the limitations of floating robots – they don't want it to have wings or to depend on hot gas for buoyancy like a hot air balloon does.
The freshest idea at the moment is the Windbot. The theoretical plan is to fling these bots into the Jovian atmosphere so that they can just bob there. They won't fly around the surface, they'll just bounce around in the atmosphere. The bot would stay aloft by using rotors to control its direction and lift.
Hovering in the atmosphere is no easy feat. The next stage is to figure out how to take advantage of unusual energy sources so that the Windbot can use them as a power source and prolong its stay. Potential sources of energy would be the wind, temperature variations and possibly the planet's magnetic field.
While there is currently no mission planned to send a robot into Jupiter's atmosphere (although the Juno spacecraft will orbit it next year), the researchers are hoping to extend their studies to make these sorts of gas giant projects viable in the future.
Past missions to Jupiter have included the Galileo orbiter that circled the gas giant for seven years until 2003 and even dropped a probe into the planet. Unfortunately, the probe succumbed to the terrible heat and crushing pressure as it plunged deeper through the gas giant. At around 78 minutes in, the probe melted.
This probe, unlike the proposed Windbots, had no form of control once it was flung into the planet. The Windbots will need to stay aloft in the atmosphere to avoid the same fate.
If Windbots turn out to be affordable, then it would be wonderful to have them dotted all over Jupiter. This way scientists could monitor gas flow and variations in the environment around Jupiter. If successful, these bots may even go and visit Saturn.