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By Thomas Wheeler

Although I am not one for browsing the preschool aisle in the toy store all that often, one particular line of -- let's call them "early years action figures" -- has caught my attention. It's what might be called a non-aligned spin-off of the popular Rescue Heroes line produced by Mattel under their Fisher-Price banner. It's called PLANET HEROES.

The basic premise is fairly simple -- imagine if every planet in oir Solar System had intelligent life on it. Now also imagine that there's a bad guy out there called "Black Hole", or "Professor Darkness", that looks like a cross between Toy Story's Emperor Zurg and Spider-Man's arch-enemy Mysterio. Each of the nine worlds (YES, they counted Pluto) has a hero representing his or her planet, to defend against this villain's schemes.

Granted, we know that most of the worlds in our Solar System aren't inhabited. But keep in mind, this is a toy line for young kids. And frankly, if it can be used, even in its fantasy way, to encourage young kids to study more about the REAL Solar System, then hey, I'm all in favor of it.

So, categorized as a preschool toy or not, I'm getting a real kick out of this PLANET HEROES line. It is my intention to present individual reviews of the toys, and also to present some real-world (!) backstory on the planets represented by these characters. For this review, I'll be taking a look at the sixth planet in our Solar System -- SATURN -- and its representative among the Planet Heroes team, a character named RINGS.

While I am not certain of the level of space education given to children these days, Saturn is most likely the best known, or certainly most easily recognized of the planets in our Solar System, because of its most distinctive feature -- it's massive ring system.

I actually had the chance to view Saturn through an observatory's telescope one time, years ago. There are a good number of observatories in Arizona, and one of the best known is Kitt Peak National Observatory. It is open to the public in the daytime, but obviously this does not help when wanting to view planets. A few times a year, Kitt Peak has a "Public Vieweing Evening". These are very limited in frequency and in the number of people they can take, and I was very fortunate to get in on one of them one time.

I was even more fortunate in that one of the planetary bodies visible that evening was Saturn, and the observatory has a 36" optical telescope trained right on it. Imagine looking through a telescope, and seeing Saturn so clearly that you could see the planet, two wide, distinct rings, the shadows that the rings were casting on the planet, and five of Saturn's nearby moons. It was an experience I'll never forget.

Let's consider Saturn's history: Jupiter and Saturn are often grouped together, much like Uranus and Neptune, as the two "big boys" of the Solar System, although Saturn is somewhat smaller, measuring approximately 120,000 kilometers in diameter compared to Jupiter's 143,200 km in diameter.

Classified as a gas giant like Jupiter, the planet Saturn is composed of hydrogen, with small proportions of helium and trace elements. The interior consists of a small core of rock and ice, surrounded by a thick layer of metallic hydrogen and a gaseous outer layer. The outer atmosphere is generally bland in appearance, although long-lived features can appear. Wind speeds on Saturn can reach 1,800 km/h, significantly faster than those on Jupiter. The outer atmosphere of Saturn consists of about 93.2% molecular hydrogen and 6.7% helium. Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, phosphine, and methane have also been detected. The upper clouds on Saturn are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to be composed of either ammonium hydrosulfide or water. The atmosphere of Saturn is significantly deficient in helium relative to the abundance of the elements in the Sun.

Saturn's usually bland atmosphere occasionally exhibits long-lived ovals and other features common on Jupiter. In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope observed an enormous white cloud near Saturn's equator which was not present during the Voyager encounters, and, in 1994, another smaller storm was observed. The 1990 storm was an example of a Great White Spot, a unique but short-lived phenomenon which occurs once every Saturnian year, or roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere's summer solstice. Previous Great White Spots were observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, and 1960, with the 1933 storm being the most famous. If the periodicity is maintained, another storm will occur in about 2020. In recent images from the Cassini spacecraft, Saturn's northern hemisphere appears a bright blue, similar to Uranus, as can be seen in the image below. This blue color cannot currently be observed from Earth, because Saturn's rings are currently blocking its northern hemisphere.

Obviously Saturn's best-known feature is its amazing system of broad rings. The rings were first observed by Galileo Galilei in 1610 with his telescope, but he was unable to identify them as such. He wrote to the Duke of Tuscany that "The planet Saturn is not alone, but is composed of three, which almost touch one another and never move nor change with respect to one another. They are arranged in a line parallel to the zodiac, and the middle one (Saturn itself) is about three times the size of the lateral ones [the edges of the rings]." He also described Saturn as having "ears." In 1612 the plane of the rings was oriented directly at the Earth and the rings appeared to vanish. Then, in 1613, they reappeared again, further confusing Galileo.

In 1655, Christiaan Huygens became the first person to suggest that Saturn was surrounded by a ring. Using a telescope that was far superior to those available to Galileo, Huygens observed Saturn and wrote that "It [Saturn] is surrounded by a thin, flat, ring, nowhere touching, inclined to the ecliptic."

In 1675, Giovanni Domenico Cassini determined that Saturn's ring was composed of multiple smaller rings with gaps between them; the largest of these gaps was later named the Cassini Division. This division in itself is a 4,800 km wide region between the A Ring and B Ring.

In 1859, James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated that the rings could not be solid or they would become unstable and break apart. He proposed that the rings must be composed of numerous small particles, all independently orbiting Saturn. Maxwell's theory was proven correct in 1895 through spectroscopic studies of the rings carried out by James Keeler of Lick Observatory.

The rings extend from 6,630 km to 120,700 km above Saturn's equator, average approximately 20 meters in thickness, and are composed of 93 percent water ice with a smattering of tholin impurities, and 7 percent amorphous carbon. They range in size from specks of dust to the size of a small automobile.

While the largest gaps in the rings, such as the Cassini Division and Encke Division, can be seen from Earth, both Voyager spacecraft discovered that the rings have an intricate structure of thousands of thin gaps and ringlets. This structure is thought to arise, in several different ways, from the gravitational pull of Saturn's many moons. Some gaps are cleared out by the passage of tiny moonlets such as Pan, many more of which may yet be discovered, and some ringlets seem to be maintained by the gravitational effects of small shepherd satellites such as Prometheus and Pandora. Other gaps arise from resonances between the orbital period of particles in the gap and that of a more massive moon further out; Mimas maintains the Cassini division in this manner. Still more structure in the rings consists of spiral waves raised by the moons' periodic gravitational perturbations.

Data from the Cassini space probe indicate that the rings of Saturn possess their own atmosphere, independent of that of the planet itself. The atmosphere is composed of molecular oxygen gas produced when ultraviolet light from the Sun interacts with water ice in the rings.

Saturn also has a large number of moons. By far the largest of these is Titan, which is 150% the size of our own moon. Titan is the only moon in the Solar System to have a dense atmosphere. While most of the moons in the Saturnian system are small in size, Titan is, relatively speaking, gigantic, with a diameter of over 5000 kilometers. After the sun, all planets except for Pluto, and Jupiter's moon Ganymede, Titan is the most massive object in the Solar System. Titan comprises more than 90 percent of the mass in orbit around Saturn, including the rings.

The Cassini probe in the past couple of years discovered even more amazing things about Saturn, its rings, and its moons: Since early 2005, scientists have been tracking lightning on Saturn, primarily found by Cassini. The power of the lightning is said to be approximately 1000 times than that of the lightning on Earth. In addition, scientists believe that this storm is the strongest of its kind ever seen.

On March 10, 2006, NASA reported that, through images, the Cassini probe found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. Images had also shown particles of water in its liquid state being emitted by icy jets and towering plumes. According to Dr. Andrew Ingersoll, California Institute of Technology, "Other moons in the solar system have liquid-water oceans covered by kilometers of icy crust. What's different here is that pockets of liquid water may be no more than tens of meters below the surface."

On September 20, 2006, a Cassini probe photograph revealed a previously undiscovered planetary ring, outside the brighter main rings of Saturn and inside the G and E rings. Apparently, the source of this ring is the result of the crashing of a meteoroid off two of the moons of Saturn.

In July 2006, Cassini saw the first proof of hydrocarbon lakes near Titan's north pole, which was confirmed in January 2007. In March 2007, additional images near Titan's north pole discovered hydrocarbon "seas," the largest of which is almost the size of the Caspian Sea.

Perhaps it is not surprising, given Saturn's prominence in the Solar System, that its representative on the Planet Heroes team, named Rings (derivative but not inappropriate) is the most level-headed of the lot, and is the team's leader and tactician. His personality, as seen on the CGI animated DVD that accompanies him and several other Planet Heroes figures, would probably best be described as patient and gentlemanly for the most part.

Rings is reasonably humanoid. He stands about 6-1/2" in height, about average, if anything about this line can be said to be average. He has a somewhat oblong head, with a textured face, that has a prominent brow, rather small eyes, no visible nose or ears, and a mouth that manages to reflect an expression of both determination and kindliness. Rings' skin color is a pale turquoise.

His head is encased in a transparent helmet that has a ring around the center of it. This is not removable. He is outfitted in a distinctive and striking spacesuit that is predominantly black with significant amounts of white trim, and lesser amounts of grey and yellow. Although these aren't necessarily colors associated with the planet Saturn, they look good on the figure, and the end result is quite impressive, and a figure that stands out even in the peculiar crowd that is the Planet Heroes.

In keeping with the look of his planet, at least, there are wide bands, designed to emulate the look of rings, at the figure's shoulders, upper legs, and boot tops. Of particular note is the insignia on Rings' uniform. Where most of the Planet Heroes have a circular insignia with a design that resembles their planet, accompanied by a number representing that world's position in the Solar System, Ring's insignia is far more ornate. It is a tilted oval, with an outer series of rings in yellow and orange, with the circular insignia within. And even this insignia shows an image of Saturn itself, with its own rings, and the number "6". It's really a very cool overall design.

Rings has the expected level of articulation for a Planet Heroes figure. He does turn at the head. Apparently the helmet is somehow connected to the head. He is also poseable at the arms, which move outward as well as back and forth, wrists, and legs.

Since Rings is part of the Deluxe series of Planet Heroes figures, he comes with a vehicle. And as one might expect, the vehicle is designed to be reminiscent of the planet Saturn, itself.

Basically, it's a giant rolling ring. And it's not like we haven't seen designs like this before. I was honestly reminded of Dirk Courage's Rimfire Cannon vehicle from the 80's series "Spiral Zone". However, you could just as easily throw General Grievous' contraption from Star Wars Episode III in here, or for that matter, one of the vehicles that came out in the M.A.R.S. Heroes line. Face it, these days, you put a ring on wheels, you're going to get these comparisons.

Obviously, Rings' vehicle, which isn't given a specific name of its own, isn't quite as menacing in appearance as these others. But it does manage to be impressive enough in its own right. The main "ring" itself is about 7-1/2" in diameter, and is white and yellow. There is a seat in the center of it for the figure, and two control sticks that he can hold. In the back of the vehicle is an engine, which features a highly detailed sticker of a jet output. The vehicle can ride along any smooth surface thanks to three wheels underneath it.

There is also a ring "launcher" of sorts on the top of the vehicle. It's designed to shoot three small red ring-like projectiles. But remember, this is a preschool toy. There is a spring in it, but it's designed to move the level BACK after it has been manually pushed forward by the user to launch the ring -- probably just far enough for the vehicle to run it over. What, you expected a preschool toy to incorporate something that would fire it across the room? Not terribly likely. Frankly, I'm surprised this feature exists at all...

Rings comes with a comic book adaptation of the CGI animated DVD that some of the other toys come with, although the comic book leaves the ending open for the toy buyer to work out on his own. It's a basic story of the nine Planet Heroes characters going off to fight the latest threat from their enemy, Professor Darkness. It's interesting that the comic book is listed as "Volume 1". You get the same comic book, or the same DVD, with any of the toys, depending on which one is included (and in more recent releases I've noticed that neither has been). I was wondering if any further adventures were planned. I'm starting to think they may be waiting for the extension of the line. Just before Christmas, I saw two new characters (whom I will review separately at a later time), and clearly the line is a decent hit, since even closer to Christmas, supplies of Planet Heroes pretty well dried up in most places. The only other toy line I saw evaporate that completely was Transformers.

I'm impressed with the entire PLANET HEROES line, and I look forward to bringing more of them into my collection and reviewing them along the way, and I am pleased to see that it appears to be doing well sales- wise. For all of their fanciful aspects, they're not at all a bad way to introduce youngsters to the real world of space science and space exploration, and that can't be a bad thing to do. And certainly RINGS, representing the planet SATURN, has my enthusiastic recommendation!