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This article on NASA's website describes 10 things we’ve learned about Earth by studying the Moon, including the makeup of a newborn Earth and potential clues to how life began on Earth. The Clementine imaging experiment showed that ice exists in the permanently shadowed areas at the bottom of deep craters near the Moon's south pole. Presumably, it might be possible to take ice-core samples there. Would these samples contain preserved information about our past that we cannot obtain in other ways, such as by studying ice-core samples taken here on Earth or by analyzing the lunar samples brought back by Apollo?

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  • $\begingroup$ The ice-core samples taken on Earth contain information about the past stored in the layers of snow that were compressed to ice. But there is no snow falling into craters near the south pole of the moon. Snow is impossible without clouds of water vapor in an atmosphere. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Apr 4 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Uwe it's not snowing that makes ice cores interesting, is's simply that the deeper you look into the ice, the further back in time the ice was deposited. For these ice deposits, might there not still be some kind of gradient? It' might be over centimeters rather than kilometers. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 4 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ Is there some process that could cause lunar ice to be deposited? There wouldn't be a record of change over time because you're not laying down new layers to record the changes. $\endgroup$ Apr 15 at 20:27

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Yes. There are two broad categories of things we can learn from ice cores on the Moon: scientific and it's viability as a resource for space exploration.

Scientific

Here are some examples:

Some of the ice appears to be 3 billion years old. It can be aged by radiometric dating. Ice samples inevitably contain contaminants such as traces of Uranium that allow dating to billions of years in the past.

Isotopic studies also help determine the origin of the water, whether it is from comets or volcanic processes on the young moon & if such volcanic processes were still active in the last billion years. If the isotope profile is volcanic and similar to Earth, it would help to confirm (or refute) the giant impact hypothesis. If it has a comet or asteroid origin it will also shed light on the origin of Earth's water. Ice on the Moon will "average" over many comets (or asteroids), something that individual samples from comets and asteroids visited by spacecraft cannot achieve.

The composition, age structure and volume of the ice will also help determine how frequent comets have been in the last 3 billion years. This will aid our understanding of the evolution of the outer Solar System in particular. And do comets intrude into the solar system in showers or at a steady pace?

Space Exploration

It's hoped that ice on the Moon will serve to advance space exploration in several ways.

  • It will provide a source of water for permanent colonies on the Moon, avoiding the expensive transfer of water from Earth.
  • By electrolysis of H2O into H2 and O2, it could provide a source of rocket fuel and power for lunar rovers (via fuel cells).

It's only after in-situ exploration, especially obtaining ice cores, that the feasibility of such uses can be determined. If ice resources are small, and/or heavily contaminated with moon dust, their utility for the purposes of space exploration is more limited.

And is the ice located at sites far from where permanent sunlight is available? Such sites are where habitats are likely to be built and where solar cells will be located to both clean the water of contaminants and electrolyse it for fuel purposes. It may be a logistic problem that slows lunar colonisation and space exploration.

Conclusion

Ice cores from the Moon will tell us a lot about the Earth, Moon and Solar System that we don't already know. And the abundance, purity and location of the ice - which can only be determined by in-situ exploration and core samples - will guide exploration of the Moon and likely more distant parts of the Solar System.

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