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This is a small guide dedicated to the art of navigating the "heights" and "valleys" of the galaxy, that is to be the high and low z-axis parts of the galaxy. It is aimed towards beginners in the field of exploration, or people who come from the Bubble and never really explored these areas : seasoned travellers will not necessarily find it useful, even if it might entertain them.
What are we talking about, exactly?
Space is in 3D, and there are no directions in space, so speaking of the "high" or "low" areas in the galaxy make little to no sense from a technical perspective, but we need a point of reference. The part of the galaxy this guide focuses on is the thin halo of stars that is surrounding the galaxy on the z-axis, especially near the star-dense regions of the galactic core. If we take Colonia (or Sol) as a reference point, this is the part of the galaxy that starts between 2,000 to 2,500 lightyears above or below the Sol-Colonia reference "altitude", and expands until there are no reachable stars in sight, usually around 3,500 to 4,000 lightyears above the reference point. This area is also located within the dense areas near the galactic core, typically between 10,000 to 5,000 lightyears away from the core. I like to call expeditions focusing on this layer "z-axis exploration". I am going to refer to this area as "the heights" from now on.
Why go there?
The heights is an interesting place in many aspects. The first, obvious aspect is that many travellers and explorers focus on x and y-axis exploration. Even near very well-travelled areas such as Colonia or the Colonia Connection Highway, travelling "up" or "down" will make you encounter litteral fields of completely unexplored stars. Of course, this isn't very interesting in and of itself : after all, lots of galactic areas are not explored and yet thoroughly boring. This is not the case of this region of space. The heights of the galaxy have interesting stellar properties. Because of the way mass is distributed in the galaxy, these areas have a high mass-to-star ratio, coupled with high stellar age. In other words : there are virtually no stars below K-class stars, and very few of these pesky M-class red dwarfs. The high stellar age means that most of these stars are pretty old - with the exception of rather recent blue giants -, which further increases your chances of finding interesting things in the heights : neutron stars, black holes, ELWs, Waterworlds - the density of interesting star systems is pretty hugh up there due to the star distribution. It is also a change of scenery, especially compared to Colonia : every explorer should at least once get a glimpse of the galaxy below or above them, stretching from one side of the horizon to the other, with a pitch black sky above. If you want to practice isolation, this is a splendid place. Last but not least, travel up there is fast. Because of the mean star age, neutron stars are everywhere : enjoy your neutron highways!
What about jump range? Do I need a huge jump range?
Yes and no. While stars are indeed pretty scarce up there, you do not need record-breaking jump ranges to explore the heights. The reason for that is simple : while reaching the highest stars does require jump capacity in the 70 to 80 lightyears range (only reasonably reachable with a highly optimized Anaconda or Krait Phantom) the layers of interesting systems require way less than that. There is a "sweet spot", around 3,000 to 3,500 lightyears above the galactic horizontal axis where jump ranges of no more than 45-50 lightyears are perfectly alright for travelling. Such jump ranges do not require complex engineering : a simple D-rated Diamondback Explorer with a G5 engineered FSD easily breaks the 50 lightyears limit. Of course, the more jump range you have, the more comfortable you'll feel, but very high jump ranges are absolutely not required for casual exploration of the heights.
A few words of advice?
The heights are not much more dangerous or complex to travel around than regular layers of the galaxy, but they do require a few precautions in order not to get stuck, or end up in a bad position. A few bullet points :
- Watch out for dead ends. Most systems are scoopable, so running out of fuel in a distant system isn't a real issue. The real danger is to end up in a dead end system after a long-range neutron jump towards a non-neutron system, in which case you're good for a self-destruct. Yes, dying to reach an unescapable system is perhaps peak space madness, but it is not very helpful if you want to live to tell the tale. Avoiding dead ends only requires a simple trick : when you plot a course, always plot without neutrons first. If your plotting is successful, then there is no risk. If it isn't, it means your target can only be reached via neutron jump. If it doesn't contain a neutron, it is a true dead end. Abort.
- FSD injections are your friends. Personally I do not think that it is a good idea to systematically rely on FSD injections in order to travel further than your jump range might enable you, partly because there are very few easy raw material farm sites near Colonia. This is a purely subjective opinion. However, I encourage you to always keep at least 4 to 5 top-level FSD injections to get out of potential dead ends or escape from a system if you are too low on fuel. Keep in mind that the highest level injection only gives you a 150% boost while neutron jumps are a 400% boost, so do not count on FSD injections to enable you to escape from a neutron dead end.
- Bring an AFMU. If you've made it to Colonia, that's probably not an actual advice for you. But still, given the density of neutrons up there, bring two if you can.
- Remember that if you are low on fuel, economic plotting cannot save you given that you will very likely be operating at the limits of your jump range.
- This is a quality of life advice more than a crucial one, but when you are jumping towards a star that is within your jump range I duly encourage you to target systems instead of plotting a course. Due to the way the plotting system works, the lower the star density, the longer the plotting process. Targeting bypasses this.
- An lastly, if you have a fear of blackholes or neutrons, the heights are the best place to confront yourself to these fears. There are even systems with multiple black holes and neutron stars!
Here's Spansh's famous Neutron Route Plotter. Cut your travel time by four!