On April 6th, 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 gas-guzzling spacecraft. It’s interested in finding more oil on Earth to support its gas-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.