There's oil in that thar … Chinese space probe?

What could possibly go wrong when sending oil into space at 500 times sea level pressure?

China has announced the successful launch of its SJ-10 probe, which ascended into the heavens atop a Long March 2-D rocket overnight and will one day return to Earth.

China's always happy to talk up its retrievable space technology, as it's successfully recovered 25 missions in recent years. That capability means China is happy to court interest from beyond its borders and ahead of this mission considered a couple of hundred applications for experiments.

19 made it aboard the SJ-10, including one cooked up by the European Space Agency, China’s National Space Science Centre, France’s Total oil company and China’s PetroChina oil company. The “Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil experiment” comprises “six sturdy cylinders, each containing just one millilitre of crude oil but compressed up to 500 times normal pressure at sea level on Earth.”

The aim of the experiment is to learn about how oil behaves deep underground, in order to advance our knowledge of how to extract it. The problem boffins are trying to crack is that petroleum compounds move under pressure so heavier substances end up closer to the surface than lighter materials.

“Imagine a packet of cornflakes,” says ESA chap Olivier Minster, “over time the smaller flakes drop to the bottom under gravity. On a molecular scale this experiment is doing something similar but then looking at how temperature causes fluids to rearrange in weightlessness.”

Pressurising oil in weightlessness is hoped to shed some light on what's going on underground.

Retrieving the samples after their adventures is imperative if the changes to the crude oil samples are to be measured, hence the ride on the SJ-10.

The “Soret” mission shares space with an experiment studying “early-stage development of mouse embryos in microgravity to shed light on human reproduction in space” and another considering “space radiation effects on genetic stability of fruit flies and rat cells.”

Not all of the SJ-10 makes it back to Earth, but a re-entry capsule carrying crucial experiments is scheduled to return to Siziwang Banner in Inner Mongolia. That location makes the mission doubly important, as it is the spot China has chosen for its planned manned Lunar missions to land. ®

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