A Chinese satellite, launched on April 6 in the remote Gobi Desert, has a very unusual payload: it carries six titanium cylinders, each with a milliliter of crude oil compressed to more than 400 times.

Space study is no longer limited to exploration of the galaxy and the rest of the universe. Over the past few years, it has become a massive interstellar ground for scientists who wish to learn more about the Earth, such as its weather patterns.

China's SJ-10 satellite, piggybacking on the Long March 2-D rocket, is doing exactly the same thing, only that its task is more bizarre than most others. By bringing crude oil into space, international researchers will be able to find more of it underneath the Earth's crust.

Called Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil study, it is a project by two international space agencies, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Space Science Centre (NSSC) of China, and two petroleum companies in China and France.

"The experiment is designed to sharpen our understanding of deep crude oil reservoirs up to 8 km (approx. 5 miles) underground," said Antonio Verga, ESA's project leader.

Molecules of crude oil behave differently once they are exposed to uneven temperatures and high pressure. They tend to "move" and redistribute, a phenomenon that scientists have not completely understood. For example, at deeper levels of 7 to 8 kilometers (4.3 to 5 miles), light crude oil tends to move farther downward or sink, while heavy crude oil moves upward or floats, defying gravity.

Understanding this crude oil behavior is important because it is believed that there is twice the quantity of heavy than light crude oil underneath the Earth. However, harvesting bigger amounts of it has been a challenge because of its viscosity and environmental impact.

The current experiment will simulate the behavior of crude oil over a "geological timescale" within a few weeks by cooling one end of the cylinder and warming the other while in microgravity conditions.

The data obtained from this experiment can then be used to "create computer models of oil reservoirs that will help guide future decisions on their exploitation," the ESA added.

Aside from crude oil experiments, the team is also set to conduct tests to resolve other physics issues, such as gravitational waves.

The manned probe is expected to return to Earth after 12 days, although orbiter experiments will extend to three more days with batteries as source of power.

Photo: Jeff Warren | Flickr

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