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With its lunar" data-track-category="body text link">sample-return mission last month, China kicked off a new surge in visitors to the Moon. At least eight spacecraft from nations including Russia, India, China, Japan and the United States are set to touch down on the lunar surface in the next three years.

For the first time ever, several of the upcoming missions will explore some of the Moon’s most scientifically intriguing, yet sensitive areas — those at its poles. Researchers are excited about studying water that lies frozen in shadowed craters in these regions. But they’re also worried that increased traffic to the Moon might contaminate the very ice they want to study.

The ice is important to scientists for various reasons. Some want to analyse pristine samples to unlock clues to how and when Earth and the Moon accumulated water billions of years ago. Others want to mine the ice as fuel for rockets at future lunar bases.

Explorers now face a complicated choice. Do they start digging right away, to work out the processes by which they’ll mine the ice and convert it to fuel? Or do they proceed slowly, to carefully preserve the scientific record encoded in the ice? “Right now, we’ve got some scientists saying we can’t go anywhere near it because we’re going to ruin it,” says Clive Neal, a geoscientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “And others say we need it, so we’re just going to go for it.”

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