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By Thomas Wheeler

Although I don't make a habit out of visiting the preschool aisle in any given toy department, one particular toy line did catch my eye this past year -- a space-based spinoff of Mattel/Fisher-Price's popular "Rescue Heroes" line, called PLANET HEROES.

This toy line extrapolated the possibility that all nine of the worlds within the Solar System (YES, they counted Pluto, thank you, although the guy's got a bit of a complex these days...) have some form of indigenous life. For the most part, this life was humanoid, although with some interesting features, certainly.

The core character, not surprisingly, was Ace, a 10-year-old boy from Earth. Other characters featured Digger, a rock-like being from Mars (with a Scottish accent, no less); Tune, a watery-like being from Neptune; Dazzle, a young woman from Venus, and others. Basically, all nine worlds were covered, and we even got a bad guy -- Professor Darkness, representing a Black Hole, and looking like a cross between Toy Story's Emperor Zurg, and Spider-Man's arch enemy Mysterio.

Although obviously fanciful in its characters, the toy line did manage a fair amount of authenticity. There were no made up planets. This wasn't a place where you were going to find Vulcans or Klingons or Wookiees or whatever. The characters each came with background information that did present legitimate facts about each of their homeworlds.

Personally, I thought it was a great idea. Space science doesn't get nearly the emphasis it should, either in our schools or in society in general, and if PLANET HEROES can present space science in a way that appeals to young children, and get them interested in it to a point where they maintain that interest once they're out of their preschool years, then that's a very good thing as far as I'm concerned.

I was happy to see that the series would continue, starting with two new characters joining the team -- LUNAR, representing Earth's Moon, and SHOOTER, representing a shooting star. I'll review him another time. Right now I'd like to take a look at Lunar, and the Earth's Moon along with him.

I suppose I should have considered the possibility that the Planet Heroes line might stretch out this way, and the Moon is the logical first step (and no, I'm not trying to step on Neil Armstrong's famous quote there). Certainly the Moon is the most prominent object in the night sky, and has been the stuff of legend long before it was the objective of exploration.

Some basic details about the Moon - it is the fifth largest moon in the Solar System. The average center-to-center distance from the Earth to the Moon is 384,403 km, which is about thirty times the diameter of the Earth. The Moon has a diameter of 3,474 km --slightly more than a quarter that of the Earth, and about two-thirds of the average east-west distance across the United States. This means that the volume of the Moon is about 2 percent that of Earth. The gravitational pull at its surface is about 17 percent of the Earth's. The Moon makes a complete orbit around the Earth every 27.3 days.

The Moon is in synchronous rotation, meaning that it keeps nearly the same face turned towards the Earth at all times. Because of the configuration of the cratered surface, in ancient times it was thought to resemble a face. "The man in the moon" was a popular phrase for many years. One of the earliest science-fiction movies ever produced, Le Voyage dans la Lune, released in 1902, presented a small band of hardy travelers (very neatly dressed in fine suits if I recall) rocketing to the moon. In an image which would now be considered hysterical, the moon was presented to have an entirely human face, and the bullet-like rocket landed squarely in one of its eyes (ouch!). Don't ask me where the theory about the moon being made out of "green cheese" got started.

The Moon is a differentiated body, being composed of a geochemically distinct crust, mantle, and core. This structure is believed to have resulted from the fractional crystallization of a magma ocean shortly after its formation about 4.5 billion years ago. The energy required to melt the outer portion of the Moon is commonly attributed to a giant impact event that is postulated to have formed the Earth-Moon system, and the subsequent reaccretion of material in Earth orbit. Crystallization of this magma ocean would have given rise to a mafic mantle and a plagioclase-rich crust.

Geochemical mapping from orbit implies that the crust of the Moon is largely anorthositic in composition, consistent with the magma ocean hypothesis. In terms of elements, the crust is composed primarily of oxygen, silicon, magnesium, iron, calcium, and aluminium. Based on geophysical techniques, its thickness is estimated to be on average about 50 km.

Partial melting within the mantle of the Moon gave rise to the eruption of mare basalts on the lunar surface. Analyses of these basalts indicate that the mantle is composed predominantly of the minerals olivine, orthopyroxene and clinopyroxene, and that the lunar mantle is more iron rich than that of the Earth. Some lunar basalts contain high abundances of titanium (present in the mineral ilmenite), suggesting that the mantle is highly heterogeneous in composition. Moonquakes have been found to occur deep within the mantle of the Moon about 1,000 km below the surface. These occur with monthly periodicities and are related to tidal stresses caused by the eccentric orbit of the Moon about the Earth.

The Moon has a mean density of 3,346.4 kg/m3, making it the second densest moon in the Solar System after Io. Nevertheless, several lines of evidence imply that the core of the Moon is small, with a radius of about 350 km or less. This corresponds to only about 20% the size of the Moon, in contrast to about 50% as is the case for most other terrestrial bodies. The composition of the lunar core is not well constrained, but most believe that it is composed of metallic iron alloyed with a small amount of sulfur and nickel. Analyses of the Moon's time-variable rotation indicate that the core is at least partly molten.

Several mechanisms have been suggested for the Moon's formation. Early speculation proposed that the Moon broke off from the Earth's crust because of centrifugal forces, leaving a basin (presumed to be the Pacific Ocean) behind as a scar. This fission concept, however, requires too great an initial spin of the Earth. Furthermore, it would have resulted in an orbit following Earth's equatorial plane, which is not the case. Others speculated that the Moon formed elsewhere and was captured into Earth's orbit. However, the conditions required for this capture mechanism to work (such as an extended atmosphere of the Earth for dissipating energy) are improbable. The coformation hypothesis posits that the Earth and the Moon formed together at the same time and place from the primordial accretion disk. In this hypothesis, the Moon formed from material surrounding the proto-Earth, similar to the formation of the planets around the Sun. Some suggest that this hypothesis fails adequately to explain the depletion of metallic iron in the Moon. A major deficiency with all of these hypotheses is that they cannot easily account for the high angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system.

Today, the giant impact hypothesis for forming the Earth-Moon system is widely accepted by the scientific community. In this hypothesis, the impact of a Mars-sized body on the proto-Earth is postulated to have put enough material into circumterrestrial orbit to form the Moon. Given that planetary bodies are believed to have formed by the hierarchical accretion of smaller bodies to larger ones, giant impact events such as this are thought to have affected most planets. Computer simulations modelling this impact are consistent with measurements of the angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system, as well as the small size of the lunar core. Unresolved questions regarding this theory have to do with determining the relative sizes of the proto-Earth and impactor, and with determining how much material from the proto-Earth and impactor ended up in the Moon. The formation of the Moon is believed to have occurred 4.527 ± 0.010 billion years ago, about 30-50 million years after the origin of the solar system.

Early observations of the moon were conducted by Galileo, after the invention of the telescope. This device enabled the fabled astronomer to chart mountains and craters. Of course, the Moon became the focal point of the space race in the early 1960's, when President Kennedy declared that we should make it our objective to send men to the moon before the end of the decade. This was accomplished in 1969. Several more Apollo missions followed, although -- tragically and inexcusably in my opinion
-- no one has set foot on the lunar surface since the early 1970's. On January 14, 2004, President Bush called for a plan to return manned missions to the Moon by 2020. NASA is now planning for the construction of a permanent outpost at one of the lunar poles. The People's Republic of China has expressed ambitious plans for exploring the Moon and has started the Chang'e program for lunar exploration, successfully launching its first spacecraft, Chang'e-1, on October 24, 2007. India intends to launch several unmanned missions, beginning with Chandrayaan I in February 2008, followed by Chandaryaan II in 2010 or 2011; the latter is slated to include a robotic lunar rover. India also has expressed its hope for a manned mission to the Moon by 2030. The U.S. will launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008. I remain hopeful of seeing people (hopefully Americans) return to the moon in my lifetime.

So here he have Lunar -- an obvious but not inappropriate name, and it certainly works better than some of the others in the line. Lunar basically has a crescent moon for a head, giving him admittedly a very pointed head on one end and a chin that makes Jay Leno's look weak in comparison on the other. There are two eyes, no visible nose, and a mouth. Whatever ears the character might have are covered by what look like futuristic headphones.

Lunar is dressedin a fancy space-suit like uniform, that perhaps as a nod to the old days of "green cheese", is bright green and black. Or it could just be that this isn't a color that's seen widespread use on any of the other Rescue Heroes to date. It's not a bad choice, though, and the green really stands out against the black uniform and dark grey skin of the figure.

Lunar is fairly short, only slightly taller than Ace, the Earth representative who is a young boy. About the only thing that gives Lunar any greater proportional height is the pointy head, and his overall body is actually shorter than Ace's. This makes logical sense for a representative from a relatively small spaceborne object.

As with quite a few of the Planet Heroes, Lunar has rather large hands and feet compared to the rest of his body. These are encased in thick gauntlets and boots. Many of the Planet Heroes characters have spheres at their shoulders that resemble their respective homeworlds. This is also the case with Lunar, whose spherical shoulders are grey and have sculpted craters in them.

Although articulation is not the main point of the Planet Heroes line, most of the figures manage a capable enough level, and Lunar is no exception to this. He is poseable at the head, arms (outward as well as forward and backward), and legs. One nice thing about a preschool line, too. It's held to somewhat higher structural and safety standards, so Lunar, again like the rest of the Planet Heroes, is a decently sturdy piece of work.

One thing I took particular note of was the chest emblem. The original line of Planet Heroes figures each had a circular chest emblem, that featured an image of their homeworld and a large number, that planet's place in the Solar System. Although Lunar does have a nice image of the Moon for his chest emblem, there is no number. I suppose this makes sense. The logical selection for such a number would probably be "3.1" or "3-a" or some such. This might not only prove confusing to the younger crowd just learning how to count, but it'd be a tough fit, too.

Lunar comes with his own vehicle, called the "Crater Cruiser". It has the same color scheme as Lunar himself -- dark grey and bright green -- and it looks more than a bit like a somewhat cartoonish version of the same sort of Lunar Rover that we took up there on some of our later explorations in the early 1970's. I'm sure that was intentional. It also fires a small missile from the front.

I was pleased to note that the facts listed on the package included mention of the first manned moon landing, specifically citing Apollo 11 and the date, July 20, 1969. The up and coming generations need to have this information.

I remain very impressed by this Planet Heroes line. Okay, it's not Star Wars or Transformers. It's still cool in its own right, and its message of real-life space science is one that is urgently needed. On that basis alone I certainly recommend it.

I have no idea what Mattel's full plans are for the line for 2008. I wouldn't be surprised to see some new versions of existing characters. But clearly, there will also be new characters, and if they start doing planetary moons -- well, Earth may have one, but there are other planets in the Solar System that have enough moons to keep Planet Heroes going for years. Although it might be a bit much to expect the preschool crowd to be able to pronounce names like Amalthea, Ganymede, Lysithea, Thelxinoe, Tethys, Iapetus, Enceladus, Epimetheus, etc.

Anyway, whatever the future brings to PLANET HEROES, for now it has brought us a cool new addition to the line. His name is LUNAR, he represents the Earth's Moon, he comes with a cool Crater Cruiser, and he definitely has my highest recommendation!