I am not one for browse 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 first planet in our Solar System -- MERCURY -- and its representative among the Planet Heroes team, a character named ZIP.
Well, a name like that is short and to the point, I have to admit. But it's not at all inappropriate for the planet. Mercury is the fastest-orbiting planet in the solar system, orbiting the sun approximately every 88 days. That's the length of a Mercurian year. It is not easily seen from Earth, because of its close proximity to the Sun: its greatest angular separation from the Sun (greatest elongation) is only 28.3°. It can only be seen in morning or evening twilight.
Physically, Mercury is similar in appearance to the Moon, showing extensive mare-like plains and heavy cratering, indicating that it has been geologically inactive for billions of years. Since our knowledge of Mercury's geology is based on only a single spacecraft flyby, it is the least well understood of the terrestrial planets.
It has no natural satellites and no substantial atmosphere. The planet has a large iron core which generates a magnetic field about 0.1% as strong as that of the Earth. Surface temperatures on Mercury range from about 90 to 700 K (-180 to 430 °C), with the subsolar point being the hottest and the bottoms of craters near the poles being the coldest.
Mercury is one of the four terrestrial planets, being a rocky body like the Earth. It is the smallest of the four, with a diameter of 4879 km at its equator. Mercury consists of approximately 70% metallic and 30% silicate material. The density of the planet is the second highest in the solar system at 5.43 g/cm3, only slightly less than Earth's density.
Incredibly, despite the generally extremely high temperature of its surface, observations strongly suggest that ice exists on Mercury. The floors of some deep craters near the poles are never exposed to direct sunlight, and temperatures there remain far lower than the global average. Water ice strongly reflects radar, and observations reveal that there are patches of very high radar reflection near the poles. While ice is not the only possible cause of these reflective regions, astronomers believe it is the most likely.
The orbit of Mercury is the second most eccentric of the planets, other than Pluto's, with the planet's distance from the Sun ranging from 46,000,000 to 70,000,000 kilometers. It takes 88 days to complete an orbit.
Mercury's axial tilt is only 0.01 degrees. This is over 300 times smaller than that of Jupiter, which is the second smallest axial tilt of all planets at 3.1 degrees. This means an observer at Mercury's equator during local noon would never see the sun more than 1/100 of one degree north or south of the zenith. Conversely, at the poles the Sun never rises more than 0.01° above the horizon.
At certain points on Mercury's surface, an observer would be able to see the Sun rise about halfway, then reverse and set before rising again, all within the same Mercurian day. This is because approximately four days prior to perihelion, Mercury's angular orbital velocity exactly equals its angular rotational velocity so that the Sun's apparent motion ceases; at perihelion, Mercury's angular orbital velocity then exceeds the angular rotational velocity. Thus, the Sun appears to move in a retrograde direction. Four days after perihelion, the Sun's normal apparent motion resumes at these points.
Mercury has not been significantly explored by fly-by probes. Reaching Mercury from Earth poses significant technical challenges, since the planet orbits so much closer to the Sun than does the Earth. A Mercury- bound spacecraft launched from Earth must travel over 91 million kilometers into the Sun's gravitational potential well. The only spacecraft to approach Mercury so far has been NASA's Mariner 10, in 1974-75. The spacecraft used the gravity of Venus to adjust its orbital velocity so that it could approach Mercury--the first spacecraft to use this gravitational "slingshot" effect. Mariner 10 provided the first close-up images of Mercury's surface, which immediately showed its heavily cratered nature, and also revealed many other types of geological features, such as the giant scarps which were later ascribed to the effect of the planet shrinking slightly as its iron core cools. Unfortunately, because Mariner 10's orbital period was almost exactly 3 sidereal Mercury days, the same face of the planet was lit at each of Mariner 10's close approaches, resulting in less than 45% of the planet's surface being mapped.
A second NASA mission to Mercury, named MESSENGER, which stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging -- and you really have to wonder how long it took them to put THAT together -- was launched on August 3, 2004, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket. The MESSENGER spacecraft will make several close approaches to planets to place it onto the correct trajectory to reach an orbit around Mercury. It made a fly-by of the Earth in August 2005, and of Venus in October 2006 and June 2007. Three fly-bys of Mercury are scheduled, in January 2008, October 2008, and September 2009. Most of the hemisphere not imaged by Mariner 10 will be mapped during the fly-bys. The probe will then enter an elliptical orbit around the planet in March 2011; the nominal mapping mission is one terrestrial year.
Zip is humanoid in appearance, honestly moreso than some of the other characters, as far as overall bodily proportions are concerned. He almost looks robotic, except I don't believe that he is. The only robot in the Planet Heroes line seems to be the character from Jupiter.
Zip is predominantly yellow in color, and is wearing a helmet on his head with a red visor and silver wings out to the side, not unlike the legendary helmet of Mercury. His face below the visor, assuming this is his skin color, is a greenish-grey in color, as are his arms, so perhaps he's wearing short sleeves. On the other hand, the trim on his boots is also this color, so -- who knows, really?
Zip has decidedly above-average articulation for the Planet Heroes line, especially in his legs. This is doubtless so he can assume a plausible running position. Zip is articulated at the head, arms, which move outward as well as back and forth, legs, which also move outward as well as back and forth, knees, which is highly unusual for a Planet Heroes figure, and there's an additional swivel joint at the knees, which is also where the top of his boots come up.
Zip has a relatively slender body with very narrow arms and legs, but his gloves and boots are quite bulky. No doubt a sort of stylized space suit. He's comparatively short in height, as one might expect, roughly 5", although part of that is the black disc-like object on his helmet. In overall stature, he's actually a little shorter than Ace, the representative from Earth, who has been portrayed as a boy of about ten years of age.
Zip comes with a space vehicle that looks something like a bicycle. Well, it has two wheels, anyway. There is one massive wheel in the front, and a much smaller wheel in the rear. Both wheels are encapsulated in a more or less circular framework, that has two Mercury-like wings out to either side. The vehicle features a "pull-back" motor function. Draw the vehicle backwards and then let it go, and it will proceed forward on its own for a distance.
What I had trouble figuring out initially was where precisely Zip was supposed to sit on this thing and control it. I could see no apparent seat or standing platform, no control panel of any sort. Maybe I've been spending too much time around more traditional action figures. I finally checked the illustration on the back of the package. The seat for this contraption is right on the top, and there's a -- well -- there's no delicate way to put this -- there's a sort of clip right on Zip's butt that slides over the back of the seat that keeps the figure in place.
Even so -- no handlebars, no apparent control panel. Maybe the disc on Zip's helmet lets him control this thing mentally or some such, but otherwise, this looks like a pretty reckless way to travel if you ask me.
All of the Planet Heroes characters have circular emblems on their uniforms that are a basic image of their planet and a number representing its place in the Solar System. Zip's symbol is yellowish in color, and shows some evidence of mottled craters, and of course it bears the number "1" on it. Far larger emblems, identical in appearance, are on either side of his vehicle.
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. 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. I'm not saying that every kid who buys these is going to grow up to enter a wonderful career in astronomy, but hey, that part of the scientific community could certainly use some fresh faces. And certainly ZIP, representing the planet MERCURY, has my enthusiastic recommendation, as does the entire PLANET HEROES collection!