Containers of highly pressurized crude oil were launched into space from China to help improve our knowledge of oil reservoirs buried kilometers underground.
The Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil experiment will measure how hydrocarbon molecules redistribute when the temperature is not uniform. Learning how complex liquids behave is of interest to the petroleum industry and academia, who can apply the data to model real-life conditions of oil reservoirs deep underground. These measurements can only be performed in weightlessness.
Launched on China’s SJ-10 satellite on April 6, the experiment consists of six sturdy cylinders, each containing just one milliliter of crude oil but compressed up to 500 times normal pressure at sea level on Earth – making it one of the highest-pressure items ever launched into space.
After lifting off from China’s Juiquan site in the Gobi Desert, the satellite will spend almost two weeks in orbit before it returns to Earth. After landing in Si Chuan province, the team will retrieve the experiment for detailed analysis.
The experiment is a partnership between ESA, China’s National Space Science Centre, France’s Total oil company and China’s PetroChina oil company.
The experiment’s crude oil sits in six small titanium cylinders. One end of each cylinder is warmed while the other end is cooled. Before returning to Earth, a valve is closed to prevent the liquid from remixing during reentry.
Sending such a high-pressure device into space is not to be taken lightly and the cylinders were built to withstand more than double pressure than they will during normal operations – 1,000 times atmospheric pressure.
A specialist company, Sanchez Technology in France, worked for the prime contractor QinetiQ Space in Belgium. The electronic unit was developed and built by the Shandong Institute of Aerospace Engineering at Yantay.
The experiment passed testing with the SJ-10 spacecraft at the China Academy of Space Technology in Beijing, China last year – including thermal cycling to reproduce the extreme changes in temperature the experiment will be subjected to during its orbits of Earth, as well as vibration and shock testing to simulate launch and reentry.