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Earth’s moon looms. Fifty years after humans first set foot on the lunar surface, multiple nations and for-profit private companies are racing to go back.

For those hoping to put more people on the moon, many plans for future lunar missions hinge on harvesting available resources there. And the most resource-rich target seems to be the moon’s poles, where permanently shadowed craters act as “cold traps,” building up deposits of water ice from billions of years of comet and asteroid impacts—and also a possible active “water cycle” on the moon.

Aeons in the making, those reserves could be truly enormous in size, offering sufficient water ice for astronauts to survive and thrive, enabling a sustained human presence on the moon. Extracted from frosty craters, the ice could be used for manufacturing rocket propellant, fuel cells and radiation shielding—not to mention for producing potable water.

Then again, that trove may offer treasure of a different kind. Although its utility for human survival is clear, the ice may have immense scientific value as well, revealing hidden chapters of lunar history that could inform our knowledge of how life on Earth arose and evolved. Experts are now debating whether to give a cold shoulder to nascent plans for mining lunar ice—at least until its scientific potential is better understood.

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