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Venus, removing the veil; 'Twin' planet probe may solve mysteries about Earth's crust

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Venus often is called Earth's planetary twin. But it is the differences, rather than the similarities, between it and Earth that now have caught geologists' eyes.

Besides being very similar to Earth in size and mass, Venus has a number of geological features similar to those of our planet. But it appears that Venus may be only at the beginning of the kind of crustal-shaping activity that now is the dominant geological action on Earth. That would make the planet "a powerful tool for understanding this powerful [crustal-shaping] process which has become the great unifying theme in Earth science," says Harold Masursky of the US Geological Survey.

This discovery has emerged from radar surveys of the Venusian surface carried out by the Pioneer Venus spacecraft since it began orbiting the planet in December 1978. Although some of the radar maps had been released earlier, the full range of data was presented here May 28 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The instrument responsible -- a radar altimeter -- was not originally a major part of the spacecraft's instrumentation. Pioneer Venus was designed to study the planet's atmosphere, not is surface. It carried four probes that sampled that atmosphere from top to bottom. But the altimeter was adapted for surface mapping and now has produced one the major scientific payoffs of the entire mission. For the fist time, scientists are being given a comprehensive view (some 93 percent) of the surface of this cloud-covered planet.

At a press conference, radar astronomer Gordon H. Penttengill of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Masursky, members of the Pioneer Venus radar team, outlined the main findings. Like Earth, Venus has uplands, mountains, and lowlands, although its sizzling surface -- hot enough to melt lead -- holds no oceans. However, these features are distributed quite differently from those of Earth.

There are mountains as high as any here -- one mountain massifcalled Maxwell is slightly higher than Mt. Everest. Plateaus are even higher than on Earth. But, unlike Earth's, much of the Venusian surface consists of relatively flat, rolling plains. In geologists' terms, about 60 percent of the surface is within 1,000 meters of the level that corresponds to sea level. Only 16 percent of the surface is significantly below this level, while Earth's ocean areas account for up to 70 percent of the surface.

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