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250 years in the future, humanity has colonized Mars and the Moon, and built thousands of orbiting outposts and hundreds of O'Neill cylinders in the zone between Venus and Jupiter. The key enabler of this development along with the associated population boom that comes with all this free space is the lucrative asteroid mining business, which saw a massive increase in profit in the 22nd century when antimatter production became efficient enough to support quick and easy travel throughout the solar system.

However humanity's providence has, as it usually does, created a problem. Civilization has overextended, and now requires more resources in the form of metals and liquid water to support all of its off-world colonies than it is capable of providing. Mars refuses to share its abundance of freshwater, preferring to look after its own people first, and Earth's water has become so contaminated with chemical runoff and antibiotic-resistant super-diseases caused by corporate negligence that its vast oceans and lakes are all but useless without expensive methods of filtering.

Without a steady drip of water and metal mined from the asteroid belt, humanity's offworld colonies will slowly waste away and die. The vast megacorporations that rule this future, ever eager to turn a profit, spin this resource crisis into a means with which to grab humanity by its collective balls and squeeze, effectively cornering the market on asteroid mining and its resources by virtue of being the only economic entities with enough resources to devote to the prospect. Decades later, they are the one thing keeping humanity afloat and more or less run society from the shadows by holding the billions of people who rely on their asteroid-mined water and metals to stay alive in the cold, vast expanse of space hostage.

To keep their business profitable, they've begun to bleed resources not just from the asteroid belt but the moons of Jupiter, mining additional ice from Europa to be shipped back to Earth and its off-world colonies. This water must first be desalinated, but compared to filtering the contaminated water on Earth, it still turns a profit, especially with the bulk it can be found in on Europa. As such, a large mining colony has been built inside the ice layer, extending down into the ocean below where in addition to ice mining the native wildlife can be studied for potential use in pharmaceuticals and the biotech industry. This colony is largely populated by scientists and a large number of noncons (non-consensual labor or "non-convicts"; essentially literal wage slaves who serve out their prison sentences doing unpaid manual labor for the company), as well as a small security force.

Is this kind of scenario (i.e. interplanetary water crisis) plausible? Would a mining/penal colony on Europa make sense as an investment in this environment?

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    $\begingroup$ Your noncons (non-consensual labor or 'non-convicts') are indentured labor by another name. Usually people paying off debt with their labor. Indentured labor was the backbone that built the Americas. A point of clarification, your 'literal wage slaves' aren't literal wage slaves. Wage slaves are persons enslaved by their wages to keep working. In your scenario the noncons are unpaid. They may be working off their sentences, but this doesn't make them wage slaves. Yes this is slavery, but it's penal slavery. $\endgroup$ – a4android Aug 8 '16 at 6:39
  • $\begingroup$ OK. The real question is economic. Is the cost of transportation sufficiently low to make moving water or minerals profitable? You mention antimatter production is efficient enough for quick and easy interplanetary travel, but is it cheap? It's hard to believe water filtration is more expensive than water imported from space. If so, space travel must be incredibly cheap. Then an Europan colony investment might make sense. But the cost of antimatter must be lowered to something incredibly low. $\endgroup$ – a4android Aug 8 '16 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ Lifting that mass of water out of a gravity well rather than carving it off comets or otherwise might be hard to justify even if space travel is cheaper than distilling/filtering water. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 8 '16 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ I can see a power struggle between the big water producing companies, the water smugglers, and a few operations running closed loop water systems or developing cheaper water purification systems. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 8 '16 at 7:30
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    $\begingroup$ Of course there is no reason water sources need to be from water - any source of oxygen and hydrogen would do. And no matter how polluted you think the Earth's water could get, it would still be relatively easy to process. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Aug 8 '16 at 21:00
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This can only work so long as the corporations have complete control of all means of transportation, because the basic premise (i.e. running out of water and minerals) is simply not plausible.

Any wildcatter or rival corporation setting up shop on Europa will have access to 3X the water that is contained in all the Earth's oceans. Just staying in the orbit of Jupiter provides access to 67 known satellites, and a flux tube which can provide trillions of watts of electrical energy. Moving to the Jovian Trojan points provides access to millions of new asteroids in the Jovian L4 and L5 points.

If a rival corporation has claimed Jupiter, then Saturn provides a similar cornucopia of moons, plus the atmosphere of Titan contains megatonnes of Nitrogen and the composition of the moon seems to be largely hydrocarbons, It rains natural gas on Titan.

If you are still stuck, Uranus has so much 3He in the atmosphere you could power fusion reactors to build and drive millions of mile long starships every year. Then you can access Neptune, Pluto, the Oort cloud....

The point is that resource wise, there is so much matter and energy available that any civilization with cheap antimatter can quickly and easily access it. Even using less powerful drives or even solar sails still provides economical access, just on a different timeline (much like sail powered commerce often involved year long voyages).

Since you stipulate a corporate environment, any quasi monopoly on resources is liable to be broken the moment one of the players decides that the profits available from breaking the monopoly are greater than the profits from staying inside the cartel. This problem has plagued cartels like DeBeers diamonds and OPEC for the entire period of their existence, and there is no reason to suspect that corporate players in space will behave any differently. So the period you are describing is quasi stable, the corporations are trying to milk the market for what they can get, but in the background, various corporations and even individuals (depending on how the society is structured) are laying plans to burst out into the deeper solar system and claim the immense wealth available.

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  • $\begingroup$ What about laser-based space travel? I'm going for hard sci-fi and honestly that seems more plausible, and it might extend the lifespan of this quasi-stable economic bubble you're describing by placing a harder limit on the difficulties of space travel than say antimatter. $\endgroup$ – Z.Schroeder Aug 8 '16 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ Additionally or alternatively, would the situation be helped at all if a single megacorporation had a large monopoly on space travel and was essentially the only economic entity in space a la Weyland-Yutani? It seems that the collapse of this bubble is, like you said, inevitable, but what else could I (or rather the corporate stiffs in my setting) do to delay it? $\endgroup$ – Z.Schroeder Aug 8 '16 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ The real issue is that as there are more and more colonies, there are more and more points for "leakage". If your laser emitter on one colony is used to send an unauthorized mission, the bubble starts to collapse. As well, the higher the monopoly profits, the more incentive people have to break it. Your corporations will have to balance keeping prices just high enough to extract profit without creating too much incentive to wildcat or break the cartel. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Aug 8 '16 at 18:03
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The problem with this scenario is that space statioms tend to be rather self-contained. In an enviornment with high technology and water prices, there would be even less water use, as everything would be recycled. The stations would quickly become closed systems and wouldn't require water.Water is heavy, and sending it across the solar system is much, much more energy-intensive than just filtering the station's waste water and recycling it.

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Yes but only in the short term because ice mining on Europa and other moons would quickly create over supply in place of under supply. Europa probably has more water than our entire planet by a factor of three. The Asteroid Belt also has a lot of H2O, Ceres is estimated to have more water than our planetary Fresh Water reserves and it's a lot closer to LEO most of the time so it's also a good investment.

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