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On Earth in 2017, finding oil or coal deposits is a tall order. However, consider a science fiction scenario where we find a habitable planet that hasn't hosted an intelligent species in at least a hundred million years, so has fossil fuel deposits in easily accessible locations. Is there a way to find them from the air, or even better from orbit, using today's sensor technology?

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    $\begingroup$ I have the very urgent hope that a spacefaring civilization has found better fuel sources than burning dead dinosaurs... But it might be a valuable option if you want a (controlled) greenhouse effect. $\endgroup$ – Burki Jun 28 '17 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki The latter is actually the case - some of the discovered planets are uncomfortably cold, so adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would be helpful. $\endgroup$ – rwallace Jun 28 '17 at 17:27
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Yes.

Early exploration for oil tended to focus on two things - the presence of oil seeps at the surface, where oil migrating from source rocks was reaching the surface, and topographical highs, which often correspond to geological uplifts that form hydrocarbon traps.

Both of these features should be detectable from orbit. We look for evidence of surface hydrocarbons which are very unstable in an oxygen atmosphere, and therefore must be recent - and topography that indicates suitable underlying geology. This would give a set of candidate drilling areas. The classic Earth location for this would be the Zagros mountains in Iran.

This would only find the most obvious locations, and you'd still drill a lot of dry wells, but it would give you a great start.

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  • $\begingroup$ With a couple of satellites, a neutrino emiiter and a neutrino detector carefully aimed at each other, you could make a sort of CT-scan of the planet at variable deeps, thus having a quite accurate density map of the different layers of the planet (atmosphere, oceans and crust). You can then combine this information with the rest of sources to locate the really big oit deposits and save yourself from drilling dry or superficial but small deposits. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jun 28 '17 at 8:33
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    $\begingroup$ Actually it would be easier to detect earthquakes and use the pattern of vibrations around the planet to image the interior - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seismic_tomography - but that's a bit too far for current technology. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Dodds Jun 28 '17 at 8:39
  • $\begingroup$ And you have to wait for earthquakes and fill either the planet's surface with sensors or its LEO orbit with extremely advanced laser meters. I think the only thing preventing us to use the neutrino-based meters is the difficulty of putting them in orbit (a lot of weight, they must be assembled by pieces, etc). I suppose that in the OP's scenario this is a minor inconvenience. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jun 28 '17 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft Why wait for an earthquake? Just chuck a lump of rock down from orbit and it will generate some quite satisfactory seismic waves when it hits the ground. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Jun 28 '17 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know enough about geology to know if the waves generated by a collision from above would generate the same kind of waves than friction from tectonic plates, though I suspect not. But if you don't mind destroying the planet while you seek (and I think you should mind) you can just hit the identified drilling zones and see what pops out of the explosion. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jun 28 '17 at 10:30
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It could be done using XIX century technology. Gravity change, magnetic field change and electrical resistance is the "advanced" technics. You could use Eoetvoes's torsion balance.

If you can have specialised station on orbit you just equip it radars and map the planet.

Anyway, you would search for the fuel the same way you search for it on earth. How do you think they find oil in Mexican Bay? Looked for oil ring on the surface?

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Remote sensing as it is called has been in use for many decades, even simple stereoscopic photographs taken from the air or satelites can be of use to a Geologist looking for oil. These enable them to look at the ground surface and look for evidence of geological features such as salt diapers, and faulting that are known oil and gas traps.

Magnetic and Gravity surveys also give clues to the presence of oil in the strata below the Earth. Radar can be also used from space to map the Earths surface and map it. This chapter in Google books from Remote Sensing: Principles and Applications, Third Edition by Floyd F. Sabins might be of interest to read.

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