Water is the very basis of life. Humans can only survive a matter of days without it. This makes it one of the primary consumables on any manned space mission. The trouble is, at this point the only source of water for spacefarers is the Earth. Any water any astronaut drinks has to be shipped to them on an incredibly expensive rocket. Certainly, once the water is in space it can be recycled many times and reused by travelers, but the fact that water had to be blasted into space in the first place is a practice that can't continue. As more people begin to operate in space the need for drinkable water will increase and it will not longer be viable to get it all from Earth.
That is just for drinking water. There is also a market for the creation of rocket fuel. Currently, numerous satellites fall to earth because they run out of gas. And, as planetary travel grows there will be the need to fuel a fleet of rocket ships. As before, fuel can be created on Earth and then launched into space to fuel all these craft. And with dropping launch costs that will an option. But, the components of water, hydrogen and oxygen, are actually the most efficient rocket fuel that exists.
The technology to split water into these elements has existed for many years and similar processes been researched for applications in Mars colonies by NASA. So, instead of shipping fuel from Earth it would actually be possible to just grab a passing comet and turn its water into rocket fuel at a fraction of the cost of launching it.
Of course, there are many operations that have to be in place before a refinery can begin work. The bodies with water have to be mapped. They have to be collected, that is, brought to the refinery. Then, once under control, the asteroid/comet actually has to have the ice mined from its rock and metal.
Fortunately, these are all operations that are being developed and perfected by existing space mining companies. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are space start-ups that have begun to develop the technologies needed to mine asteroids and comets and even process the materials. They both expect to have operating hardware in space within the next decade. This will give the creators of a space refinery plenty of time to develop their own final product. And they will be able to focus on taking water ice and turning it into liquid water and rocket fuel.
The main resource required by such a facility will be power. It must have copious amounts of electricity available to melt the mined ice, run it through filters for drinking, and perform electrolysis on it to create rocket fuel. This means that the main part of such an operation will be its power plant.
Early on it will most likely run on large solar arrays either connected to the facility itself or provided by a space utility company. It may be possible, and certainly preferable, to use nuclear energy if such technology is allowed into space as the industry develops.
|Deep Space Industries Mining/Refining Concept|
So the overall operation of such a refinery would be something along these lines. Someone goes out and collects the raw water ice from asteroids and brings it to the refinery. The refinery, which operates in planetary orbit, either purchases the ice or enters some kind of shared profit system with the mining company. The refinery is equipped with the power and storage facilities it needs to process the ice into drinkable water and fuel. This is then sold to companies that wish to keep satellites in orbit longer or to power ships onto new worlds. The model is identical to an oil company and will require great cooperation between space companies since the creation of all levels of production simultaneously by a single entity would be far to expensive.
Though getting such a company started may not be as difficult as it seems. If one were looking to start small and grow to become "The Space Refinery" it would be prudent to begin by creating and manufacturing small life-support systems that can be used by single craft or small bases to make drinkable water and purify existing supplies. This would create demand for the company in the current space industry.
Then, as permanent bases and long range re-usable craft begin to be developed, the refinery company could develop the fuel creation system. The two variations of the technology could be used in places like early moon bases like a backyard still. Such a strategy would make the company a major contributor to the industry early on and give it the position it needs to implement a larger-scale independent refinery in space when the demand arises.
Drinkable water and rocket fuel are the two primary consumables for anyone that operates in space. Any spacecraft must have fuel and any human must have water. The water needed to meet both of these needs is present in the void of space and can be exploited. The only thing that is required is an individual(s) that will work to become the "Water Baron" of space by creating the water refineries needed to exploit this abundant and necessary resource.