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By Thomas Wheeler

Although I'm generally not one for checking out the preschool section of the average toy department, one line in particular did catch my eye last year -- PLANET HEROES, a space-based spin-off of sorts of Mattel/Fisher- Price's popular "Rescue Heroes" concept.

In Planet Heroes, the theory is put forth that all of the planets of the Solar System are inhabited by indigenous life. While a bit of a stretch, it does allow the line to present the various planets of the Solar System (including Pluto!) in an amusing and interesting light, appealing to the younger crowd, and there is some level of legitimate science worked into the concept.

Seeing as how the entire planetary population of the Solar System was represented in the first assortments, I rather wondered where the line was going to proceed in 2008. I have seen some repackagings and recolorings. Ace, the boy representing Earth, has turned up in a recolored (and bright green, no less!) astronaut suit, packaged with a space buggy of some sort. Digger, the character from Mars, has turned up with a buggy of his own, although the figure himself has not been recolored. Wouldn't be entirely appropriate if he was. Mars is the "red planet". What are you going to do with the character -- make him purple!?

But there are several new characters in the line. One of these is called "Shooter", representing "shooting stars". And here, in my opinion, we have just a little bit of a trouble in our definition of terms. What, precisely, does Shooter represent?

He doesn't represent other stars. This toy line, for the moment, anyway, seems content to stay within the Solar System, as I believe it should. Even though one or two robotic probes have left the Solar System over the years, they're a long, long way from getting anywhere close to any of our neighbors. Alas, warp drive doesn't exist -- yet, anyway.

Unfortunately, the term "shooting star" isn't very scientific. It can probably best be used to define the meteorite particles that appear in Earth's atmosphere, super-heated by the friction caused with contact with our atmosphere, which leaves a trail across the sky as they burn up.

The packages for the Planet Heroes toys list several scientific facts, generally simply stated, for the child's benefit. The ones for Shooter are somewhat helpful in identifying him better. They read, "Startling streaks of light that suddenly appear when a dust particle from space evaporates high in the Earth's atmosphere." and "Some scientists believe that shooting stars are broken fragments of comets."

Okay, well, that's SOME help. But we're still left with the division between meteorites and comets, which are not the same thing. I've made it my practice to provide some scientific background on the planets represented by the Planet Heroes characters in these reviews, in the hope that readers will encourage their kids who might own these toys to do some further research on their own, and perhaps increase their interest in real-life space exploration.

I suppose in Shooter's case, we have to have a bit of a look at both comets and meteorites. Let's start with comets.

Comets are small Solar System bodies that orbit the Sun and, when close enough to the Sun, exhibit a visible coma (or atmosphere) and/or a tail -- both primarily from the effects of solar radiation upon the comet's nucleus. Comet nuclei are themselves loose collections of ice, dust and small rocky particles, measuring a few kilometres or tens of kilometres across.

Comets have a variety of different orbital periods, ranging from a few years, to 50 or 100 years, to hundreds of thousands of years, while some are believed to pass through the inner Solar System only once before being thrown out into interstellar space. Short-period comets are thought to originate in the Kuiper Belt, which lies beyond the orbit of Neptune. Long-period comets are believed to originate at a very much greater distance from the Sun, in a cloud (the Oort cloud) consisting of debris left over from the condensation of the solar nebula. Comets are thrown from these outer reaches of the Solar System inwards towards the Sun by gravitational perturbations from the outer planets (in the case of Kuiper Belt objects) or nearby stars (in the case of Oort Cloud objects), or as a result of collisions.

Comet nuclei are in a range from 1/2 kilometer to 50 kilometers across and are composed of rock, dust, water ice, and frozen gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. They are often popularly described as "dirty snowballs", though recent observations have revealed dry dusty or rocky surfaces, suggesting that the ices are hidden beneath the crust.

As a comet approaches the inner solar system, solar radiation causes the water, frozen gases and other volatile materials within the comet to vaporise and stream out of the nucleus, carrying dust away with them. The streams of dust and gas thus released form a huge, extremely tenuous atmosphere around the comet called the coma, and the force exerted on the coma by the Sun's radiation pressure and solar wind cause an enormous tail to form, which points away from the sun.

The streams of dust and gas each form their own distinct tail, pointing in slightly different directions. The tail of dust is left behind in the comet's orbit in such a manner that it often forms a curved tail. At the same time, the ion tail, made of gases, always points directly away from the Sun, as this gas is more strongly affected by the solar wind than is dust, following magnetic field lines rather than an orbital trajectory. While the solid nucleus of comets is generally less than 50 km across, the coma may be larger than the Sun, and ion tails have been observed to extend 1 astronomical unit (the distance from the Earth to the Sun) or more.

Obviously, one of the best known comets is Comet Halley, which has rather reliably returned to the inner Solar System for centuries. It last appeared in 1986, and I was able to see it -- barely -- when it did. More recently, in 1996 and 1997, Comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp, did a nice job of adding some interesting features to the night sky. I even managed a half-way decent photograph of one of these. But comets can be unpredictable. One in the 1970's, named Kohoutek, was expected to be spectacular. It was a spectacular flop.

Now, let's consider meteorites briefly. A meteorite is a natural object originating in outer space that survives an impact with the Earth's surface. While in space it is called a meteoroid. When it enters the atmosphere, air resistance causes the body to heat up and emit light, thus forming a fireball, also known as a meteor or shooting star (and here is where I think we have the better connection to our Planet Heroes character).

Meteorites have traditionally been divided into three broad categories: stony meteorites are rocks, mainly composed of silicate minerals; iron meteorites are largely composed of metallic iron-nickel; and, stony-iron meteorites contain large amounts of both metallic and rocky material. Modern classification schemes divide meteorites into groups according to their structure, chemical and isotopic composition and mineralogy.

Most meteoroids disintegrate when entering the Earth's atmosphere. However, an estimated 500 meteorites ranging in size from marbles to basketballs or larger do reach the surface each year; only 5 or 6 of these are typically recovered and made known to scientists. Few meteorites are large enough to create large impact craters. Instead, they typically arrive at the surface at their terminal velocity and, at most, create a small pit. Even so, falling meteorites have reportedly caused damage to property, livestock and people.

Very large meteoroids may strike the ground with a significant fraction of their cosmic velocity, leaving behind a hypervelocity impact crater. The kind of crater will depend on the size, composition, degree of fragmentation, and incoming angle of the impactor. The force of such collisions has the potential to cause widespread destruction. The most frequent hypervelocity cratering events on the Earth are caused by iron meteoroids, which are most easily able to transit the atmosphere intact. Examples of craters caused by iron meteoroids include Barringer Meteor Crater, Odessa Meteor Crater, Wabar craters, and Wolfe Creek crater; iron meteorites are found in association with all of these craters. In contrast, even relatively large stony or icy bodies like small comets or asteroids, up to millions of tons, are disrupted in the atmosphere, and do not make impact craters. (Now this is interesting in that it DOES mention comets here, again, relative to the comment on the Planet Heroes character.)

One of the leading theories regarding the extinction of dinosaurs has been the possibility of a massive meteorite impact with Earth. More "recent" impacts have certainly left their mark, one right here in my home state of Arizona, the aforementioned Barringer Meteor Crater, generally better known simply as Meteor Crater, at over a kilometer across. An incident in the former Soviet Union, called the Tunguska incident, may have been caused by a meteorite. And of course, the threat of a meteorite strike of massive proportions has been the subject of a great deal of scientific debate in recent years, as well as two movies in the same year, "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon", giving a fair number of reasonably notable actors the opportunity to play second fiddle to a large space rock.

Which brings us back to our new Planet Heroes friend, Shooter. How to classify him? Well, the scientific information in the report that I included on meteorites in this review does mention that it's possible that some meteorites started out as comets, so perhaps that is the best way to go here.

I base this largely on Shooter's appearance. Frankly, he doesn't look especially rock-like. There are rock-like characters in the Planet Heroes line. Digger, representing Mars; Shiver, representing Pluto; and Tiny, representing Asteroids, all have rock-like appearances to one degree ot another. Shooter doesn't. Since there aren't any previous comet-based characters in the line, perhaps we should regard Shooter as the first.

Oddly, Shooter almost looks robotic. But I think this is coincidence. There's only one really robotic character in the Planet Heroes line, and that's Gustus, representing Jupiter. And precisely why we have a robot representing Jupiter is still something that I don't think has been explained all that well, but I'm probably expecting a little too much from a preschool line here.

So let's assume that Shooter is not a robot, and that the rather straight-and-jagged appearance of the character is his natural look. In this, I believe, we do have a stylized comet-like design to the character.

Shooter stands about 6-3/4" in height. This makes him about the same height as the one more or less human adult in the line, Dazzle, who represents Venus. She's about 6" in height. Of course, some of Shooter's additional height can be credited to the large spike on his head. He can pretty much look Dazzle in the eyes.

Shooter has a very angular head and body. His upper torso is very broad, giving the figure a cartoonish heroic appearance, as if he is very muscular. His head is straight and narrow, with one tapered spike on the top of the head, and two each on either side. He has a brow of two additional extensive points. There are two green eyes below the brow.

His wide upper body tapers upward into spiked shoulders, with a second set of spikes behind them. Unlike most of the Planet Heroes characters, who have a circular insignia on their chests with a number representing the numerical position of the planet they come from, Shooter has a bright yellow star insignia embossed on his chest, although the basic Planet Heroes insignia, a ringed planet with the letter "P" in it, also appears on his chest. These both make sense, since Shooter does not represent any one planet, but we don't want to confuse him for one of the bad guys in the line, either.

Shooter's arms and legs are what give him a sort of robotic appearance. His arms are actually longer than his legs. Both have ridged areas painted yellow on them. But I think another factor in Shooter's sort-of robotic appearance is his overall coloration, which admittedly, also, is not inappropriate for a cometary origin. Shooter's head and body are a silvery blue. The arms and legs are a sort of pale steel blue. The silvery sheen on his body and face is actually airbrushed on -- and very well, I might add. His brow, collar, and the backs of his hands have been painted metallic silver, as has an area around his waist. But I don't think Shooter is supposed to be a robot.

The figure has good articulation, but let's keep in mind that Planet Heroes is not intended as a traditional action figure line. It's a preschool line. Just a very cool one. Shooter can move at the head, arms, and legs. The arms move outward as well as back and forth. I have to say that the figure is very well constructed and very neatly painted. Granted, additional precautions have to be taken when it comes to toys for the younger crowd.

Which sort of leads me to the accessory that Shooter comes with. Shooter comes with a sort of cosmic surfboard (and no, I don't think he stole it from the Silver Surfer, but I do sort of wonder where Mattel got the idea...). This is an angular piece of yellow plastic that, to be perfectly honest, at least in its basic shape, looks a little like a very cartoonish version of a Star Wars Star Destroyer. There's a "Star Launcher" that mounts in the back, and Shooter comes with three discs, two of which can be carried in the front of the surfboard, the third in the launcher.

The launcher is a rather clever device. The sides of it expand outwards when you place a disc in it, and by pinching the sides of it, it launches the disc. I was actually able to get decent distance with this thing -- for a preschool toy -- about five feet across a flat surface.

The character description for Shooter on the back of the package says that during their "down time" from battling the enemies of the Solar System, the Planet Heroes, "hang with Star 'Shooter', the coolest surfer in the galaxy. He surfs solar winds, comet tails and other interstellar objects on his surfboard. But if trouble comes his way, his surfboard becomes a shield and he loads up his launcher to shoot more stars! After a day of Black Hole 'Professor Darkness' attitude, it's good to hang with this laid-back dude!"

I've heard that there are some new CGI episodes of Planet Heroes in the works, to be included on DVDs in future toys. Why do I get the impression that if Shooter turns up in any of these episodes, he's going to be someone that uses the word "dude" a lot and talks like he spends most of his time on a California beach?

That potentiality aside, this is a cool toy.Although a little harder to classify than some of the other Planet Heroes characters, he is nevertheless a NEW character, not a repaint of a previous character. And he has a cool look to him, and some interesting accessories.

I'd recommend this entire Planet Heroes line, along with a good dose of space exploration education, for any youngster. It's a vital area of science, and they're not going to get enough of it much of anywhere else. If Planet Heroes can inspire just a few kids to take up an interest in real-life space exploration, it will have done its job for the future. And although it's not exactly designed to fit alongside Star Wars or Transformers, the line does have a good amount of imagination to it, and is very well made. As such, SHOOTER, and indeed the entire PLANET HEROES line, definitely has my enthusiastic recommendation!