Crude oil blasted into space to study Earth's depths


An experiment in the sky will unpick the apparently gravity-defying behaviour of oil reservoirs kilometres beneath the surface of the Earth. Belinda Smith reports.


The Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil experiment, consisting of six sturdy cylinders, each containing a millilitre of crude oil, pressurised to hundreds of times that of normal atmospheric level. – ESA / QinetiQ Space

A Chinese satellite loaded with experiments, including tiny vials of crude oil, blasted off this week.

The ShiJian-10 satellite launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in the early hours of Wednesday 6 April, local time. It will spend nearly two weeks orbiting the planet before it drops back to China.

On board, among other things, are six small cylinders, each containing one millilitre of crude oil. But they're not any old containers – they've compressed the oil up to 500 times normal sea level pressure to emulate conditions deep in the Earth.

In zero gravity, one end of each cylinder will heat while the other cools, and the oil will be allowed to move. But prior to returning to Earth, a valve will close between the two ends to stop remixing.

So ... what's the point?

Imagine a packet of cornflakes, says the European Space Agency's Olivier Minster: "Over time smaller flakes drop to the bottom under gravity.

"On a molecular scale this experiment is doing something similar but then looking at how temperature can cause fluids to rearrange."

Below the surface of the Earth, as crushing pressure and temperature increase, something strange happens to oil in reservoirs. Unlike a box of breakfast cereal, the reservoir's contents appear to defy gravity. Heavy molecules don't sink to the bottom – they rise.

Seeing how the six cylinders of oil act in zero gravity while being heated and cooled will "make it easier to create computer models of oil reservoirs that will help guide future decisions on their exploration", Minster says.

Check out the satellite's launch below:


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