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The colossal outpouring of lava thought to have almost totally resurfaced Venus 500 million years ago never happened, a new study says. If correct, it means that a much longer record of Venus`s history is preserved on the planet`s surface. Planetary scientists estimated the age of Venus`s surface after studying radar mapping data from NASA`s Magellan spacecraft, which operated in the early 1990s. Assuming Venus was exposed to the same rain of asteroids and comets that the other planets experienced, they expected Magellan would spot about 5000 craters on the planet`s surface. But they found only about 1000, suggesting that the planet`s surface is actually very young - perhaps 500 million to 1 billion years old. And those craters appear remarkably well preserved, unaltered by erosion or other geological processes. That suggests that whatever erased the 4000 or so missing craters was an all-or-nothing process. The most popular explanation is that a brief but enormous episode of volcanism blanketed most of the planet in a layer of lava 1 to 3 kilometres deep - thick enough to bury all of the craters made before that time. Now, a new analysis of Magellan data suggests that such a deep layer of solidified lava cannot be present on the surface, casting doubt on the `catastrophic resurfacing` hypothesis. Valley floor Study leader Vicki Hansen of the University of Minnesota in Duluth, US, and colleagues analysed areas where islands of terrain poke up through flat `plains`. They looked at the slopes that lead down from these islands and disappear below the plains. By studying neighbouring islands, they were able to extrapolate where the slopes would reach a common base - the floor of a valley between them. They found that this base was buried less than 1 kilometre below the surface of the plains. The researchers say this is at odds with the catastrophic volcanism idea, which calls for a global blanket of lava 1 to 3 kilometres deep. They believe the islands are ancient terrain and the plains were laid down more recently - evidence that bits and pieces of the planet have been resurfaced at different times, leaving much of the planet`s older surface intact. Gradual decline That meshes well with a study presented at a conference in March by Timothy Bond and Michael Warner of Imperial College London, UK, which found a gradual decline in volcanic activity over as long as 2 billion years better fit Venus crater statistics than a single violent episode. Ellen Stofan of University College London in the UK agrees that the resurfacing process on Venus was probably more drawn out than in the catastrophic volcanism scenario. And Fred Taylor, a member of the Venus Express mission at Oxford University in the UK, says Hansen`s study adds to the evidence against a catastrophic resurfacing event, which now appears to be "too simplistic", he told New Scientist. "Personally, I have