Satellites and Oil

On a warm June morning in 1965, the Gemini 4 space capsule took to the skies from Cape Kennedy, Florida. On board were 2 astronauts, their mission seemed simple enough, circle the earth for 4 day to test mans’ endurance in space and prepare for the long journey to the moon that was scheduled to take place in just a few years.

Whilst casually orbiting Earth one day, the astronauts suddenly observed a sight that startled them.  Reaching for their cameras, they quickly snapped photos of what they saw below…  oil was bubbling to Earth’s surface.

It was from this moment, we realised we could find oil from space.

The astronauts returned home to a sensation. The controversial photos were immediately snapped up and feverishly scrutinized. Geologists soon confirmed that the images depicted oil seeping to the surface in North Africa.

More manned missions followed, revealing oil and gas deposits over Africa and Australia.    Other countries became agitated by the findings,  Britain accused America of using unfair means to gain advantages in the oil business. (Gunter 1975)

Image from Gemini 9 Mission – Oil located in the top-right corner. (Source: NASA)

The promise of finding oil from space helped to develop a new satellite, named ‘Landsat’, its cameras would be pointed down towards Earth.

Launched in 1972, Landsat could monitor weather patterns, agriculture / crop health, disaster recovery,  urban sprawl and of course,  hunt for oil and natural resources.

Beaming images back from above, Landsat brought about many new findings.  One study found that of 35 oil candidates detected in the imagery, manned investigation on the ground confirmed that 33 correlated with the existence of oilfields (Collins et al. 1974)

Searching for oil from above offers the ability to effortlessly observe hard-to-reach places and vast oceans.  Data from Landsat brought about new techniques for detecting oil slicks on the ocean surface. (Halbouty, 1976)


(Source: ESA)

Landsat became a phenomenal success and spurred many successors in the program, continuing to today, Landsat 8 launched in 2013.

It wasn’t long before private industry stepped into the arena.

In an effort to reduce government spending on the expensive Landsat program,  US Congress enacted the ‘1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act’ encouraging private enterprise to launch and operate imaging satellites.

One company to emerge from the reform was DigitalGlobe,  to this day they still feature oil exploration on their website.


Private companies offer 3D renders of satellite data to help pin-point oil fields. (Source: Satellite Imaging Corp.)

As well as providing data on oil and minerals, these companies offer to support the mining process, mapping out pipelines and monitoring of oil rigs.

Oil exploration has come a long way from the early days of manned expeditions and aerial fly-by’s. Satellites will continue to play a vital role in supporting the energy industry whilst keeping watch over oil spill disaster recoveries.

The next pit-stop can be Saturn’s moon, Titan,  which contains hundreds of times more fuel than Earth.(hydrocarbons which are found in petroleum)4



1 Gunter, Paul, The Satellite Spin-Off, 1975
2 Collins, R, Mccown, F, Stonis, L, Petzel, G & Everett, J, An evaluation of the suitability of ERTS data for the purpose of petroleum exploration, 1974
3 Halbouty, M, Application of Landsat imagery to petroleum and mineral exploration, 1976