On April 6, China's SJ-10 satellite will launch into orbit from the remote Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi desert. The event would be unremarkable if not for the satellite's rather unusual payload: six titanium cylinders of crude oil, compressed to 500 times standard atmospheric pressure. Launching stuff into orbit is expensive, and we don't exactly need oil in outer space. (Most rockets today run on liquid hydrogen and oxygen.) But China's not interested in building a fleet of petrol-guzzling spacecraft. It's interested in finding more oil on Earth to support its petrol-guzzling cars.
And strangely enough, running experiments in zero-g might be the best way to do that. The Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil Experiment, which consists of six tiny samples of highly compressed black gold, will study how the complex mess of molecules found in petroleum redistribute under intense pressures and uneven temperatures.
The Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil experiment. Image: ESA — A. Verga
And that information is of great interest to Chinese and European oil companies, who hope it will lead us to more elusive fossil fuel reserves here on Earth.
"Deep underground, crushing pressure and rising temperature as one goes down is thought to lead to a diffusion effect — petroleum compounds moving due to temperature, basically defying gravity," said Olivier Minster, a scientist with the European Space Agency, which is a partner on the project.
"Over geological timescales, heavier deposits end up rising, while lighter ones sink," he continued. "The aim is to quantify this effect in weightlessness, to make it easier to create computer models of oil reservoirs that will help guide future decisions on their exploitation."
I can't help but feel there's something terribly dystopian in space agencies being contracted by oil companies to help us discover more of the fossil fuels we're supposed to be weaning ourselves off of this century. Then again, from a basic research perspective, this sounds like a fascinating experiment.
And hey, maybe we'll learn that deep crustal oil reserves are a lot sparser or harder-to-get-at than we thought. It could wind up being the wakeup call we need to transition over to clean energy.