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Fuel Harvesting Stations

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.

Ling Standard Products is the largest manufacturer of the Remote Hydrogen Collection and Transport System (RHCaT). The RHCaT system is the most cost-efficient way found to date to provide hydrogen fuel at the lowest cost. It consists of three separate units: a collection station to collect and process raw hydrogen, unmanned pods to transport the fuel, and pod tugs to launch and collect the pods.

A RHCaT may not be present in every system. It is most economical to operate where at least one gas giant is present. If there is no gas giant, then an ice moon, planetary ice rings, or even the Oort cloud can be used for the raw materials. The base TL of the RHCaT system is on the lower end of the Imperial average TL (12). This is done to ensure that most systems can operate and support their infrastructure without costly imports of parts from other systems.

Typically, the RHCaT is operated by the local Starport Authority, and while there is no restriction on the number of RHCaTs that may be present in any one system, it is rare to find more than one in operation. On occasion large Megacorps may operate smaller-sized facilities for their own uses.

RHCaT Components

Hydrogen Collection Station (HCS): The HCS is largest and most expensive portion of the RHCaT system. Stationed near a fuel source, the HCS collects the raw fuel, prepares the shipment, supports half of the system fuel pod tug fleet, and also often acts as the primary source of fuel outside of the primary world(s) of a system. A HCS is typically comprised of one or more orbital stations that provide living accommodations, engineering support for all assigned vessels, and fuel tankage equivalent to seven days worth of collection. Some stations may actually consist of a ground base (on a planet, moon or planetoid) with an orbital component. Some HCS facilities are actually part of a much larger facility that serve as a primary trade and transport hub. A HCS may also have an accompanying refinery facility present to create refined fuel.

Fuel Collection Tanker: Each HCS maintains its own small fleet of fuel collection ships. The standard design consists of a heavily-modified 25,000 dTon tanker for gas giant mining. If the primary source of fuel is ice then instead of tankers there would be ice mining ships, also in the 25,000 Dton range. The fuel collection ships are heavily automated and designed to be operated by a minimal crew of 4 (Pilot, Co-Pilot, 2 Flight Engineers). The ships are capable of 1G fully loaded. Because the ships are meant to be operated for short periods only (average mission 12hrs or less), they only have 3 days of fuel tankage. All ship maintenance is performed by HCS crews.

Fuel Pod Tug: Like their larger brethren, the pod tugs are optimized to perform only one job: launching and catching fuel pods. Also like tankers, they are heavily automated, have minimal sensors, small crew and carry a 3 day supply of fuel onboard. Pod tugs are, in essence, a set of controls strapped onto a very large set of engines. Each pod tug is capable of moving a 25,000 Dton fuel pod at 1G. They are capable of 6G maneuvers when not attached to a pod.

Tugs are designed to work individually or as a group when maneuvering the larger fuel pods. The mission planner will determine if additional tugs will be used for larger pods, if the tug(s) assigned will accelerate for longer than the standard 8hrs, or if the fuel pod will simply take longer to arrive due to a slower transit velocity.

Fuel Pod: The heart of the system consists of the fuel pods which move back and forth among all the planets and stations of a system that require hydrogen. Fuel pods come in five standard displacements: 10k, 25k, 50k, 100k and 250k. All fuel pods carry basic navigation sensors, maneuvering thrusters, communications, automated control systems and fuel purification equipment sufficient to refine the entire cargo in 30 days (the average transit time).

Fuel pods constantly broadcast a warning beacon to all system traffic, announcing their location, heading, velocity and destination to all vessels nearby. Onboard thrusters allow controllers to maneuver the pod if required. The onboard system can also perform emergency maneuvers if it determines that a pre-defined scenario has occurred. The thrusters are able to tap into the onboard fuel and basically use the hydrogen as fuel. They are inefficient (it takes 10 minutes to alter the course of the fuel pod by 1 degree), but their performance is acceptable since they are meant for emergency use only.

The pod also contains a series of explosive charges that can be detonated remotely, effectively turning the fuel pod into space-borne flotsam, albeit potentially moving at fairly high velocity. The debris resulting from a destroyed fuel pod is no risk to any starship, and there is a very high likelihood any materials would burn up in the atmosphere of a planet.

Five percent of a pod’s mass is devoted to external hull attachments, internal hull bracing, fuel tanks, control systems and fuel processors. The hull is sufficient to protect against meteorites, but is considered to have an armor factor of 0 against any starship weapon. Each pod also is subdivided into 10 smaller fuel cells to protect against leaks. Fuel from each tank is routed through the on-board processors during the voyage.


An HCS station is crewed to operate on a continuous basis. Replacement crews and most supplies are delivered by in-system cargo transports. Most stations will be located about 90 diameters from a gas giant to allow jump-capable ships to more quickly dock, fuel up, and depart. The 10-diameter margin is to offer some protection from ships dropping out of jump directly onto the HCS.

HCS are rarely armed or armored (most are civilian stations). Depending on their location or local conditions, they may have an attached group of armed ships and/or fighter squadrons. Some stations have enough traffic to the gas giant (or have nearby colonies or mining outposts) that the HCS doubles as the local high port and is the primary transit point for that region of space.

Fueling stations may also have onboard fuel purification systems or a nearby orbital refinery supplied by the HCS. If the HCS also regularly services military ships, then the refinery capacity will be sufficient to refine all stored hydrogen within 48hrs. Storage tankage generally is sufficient to deliver fuel for seven days without replenishment. Actual volume is dictated by system-wide consumption.

Fuel pod tug(s) pick up loaded fuel pods at the station, and then begin their acceleration towards the intended target. The average fuel tug will accelerate for 8hrs toward the pod’s destination, and then de-couple from the pod. The trajectory of the pod is calculated to avoid major shipping lanes as much as possible. The pick-up area at the destination is also designed to be well-away from the fuel pods final destination. Typically a pod’s trajectory will take it ‘above’ or ‘below’ a planet’s orbit to provide an additional safety factor. Tugs that are designated to capture in-bound pods will rendezvous with the designated pod 12hrs out from its intended destination. This is to ensure that the tug has sufficient time to capture and decelerate the pod safely. Once captured the tug will decelerate for the same length of period that it was accelerated for, and then bring the pod to the station where the fuel is to be offloaded. It is very common for a tug to accelerate one pod towards its target and then capture an inbound pod a few hours later.

Fuel pods in transit follow a very predictable and pre-designated path. The actual path is calculated months in advance and refined up to the day of departure. System authorities upload the expected path and location of all fuel pods into the planetary data net and transmit schedules and navigation paths to all system stations on a daily base. Each pod monitors its own path and area around it (up to 25,000km) and regularly broadcasts its velocity and location to any ships in its area. Collisions between pods and ships in a system are extremely rare. The onboard systems have a number of pre-determined scenarios loaded that can influence the actions of the fuel pod while it drifts towards its intended destination, up to and including self-destruct. Pods transmit their status to controllers every 4hrs, and may receive updated trajectory and maneuvering instructions at any time.

Adventure Possibilities

A RHCaT offers a number of possible adventures for PCs and the clever referee. This list should by no means be considered exhaustive:

  1. The PC’s are hired to interrupt fuel supply deliveries. (The patron may be a rival government or corporation, or a shady individual, possibly acting as a cutout for someone else.) They are given the task to destroy as many fuel pods in transit as they can without getting caught. Fuel pods are able to perform basic sensor scans of ships in their vicinity, so the PC’s must figure out a way to destroy the pod and any evidence. To keep things more challenging the referee can declare that a destroyed pod has a 75% chance of ejecting a buoy containing all records up to the time of its destruction, including a sensor profile of the ship that attacked it. Finding a buoy, which are designed to be stealthy, is a difficult task (-4 to -6DM) to detect it. Because the buoy can take any trajectory from the destroyed pod, PC’s basically only have minutes to find it before its lost in space. If they have the right codes, they can transmit a signal that will cause it to emit a homing signal.
  2. The PCs are approached by a third party and are asked to attach a small ‘package’ to a fuel pod outbound from a gas giant towards the mainworld of the system. The PCs need to come up with a plan that would get them close enough to the pod to attach the package (1/2 dTon) in an area that would not be detectable to a cursory sensor sweep or visual scan. They may need to actually board the pod and attempt to re-program the onboard system so that no record of their ship exists. The referee can determine if the sensor logs are able to be edited, or if the players need to somehow generate a system ‘wipe’… which will trigger backup alarm systems and notify controllers the primary system has gone offline. PC’s may or may not be made aware of the secondary systems and their functionality.
  3. The PCs are recruited to interrupt the fuel supplies of a remote outpost in the system. They can elect to simply destroy inbound pods, but their pay will be based on how successful they are able to interrupt the fuel supply without a) getting caught, and b) drawing unwanted attention to the activities from the authorities. Small ‘accidents’, mechanical ‘failures’, etc., that seem to be random are what the patron is looking for. They want the facility to have insufficient fuel (for some reason, not shared with the PC’s).
  4. The PCs are hired as a small commando team. Their task is to infiltrate an inbound fuel pod approximately 3 days from the target, hide onboard the pod while it is captured and brought to the facility (a remote asteroid base, space station or planetoid). The facility is highly guarded, but the bulk of the security is designed to detect intruders before they get there. The PCs will need to move from the fuelling area, enter the installation and retrieve certain information/items, and then get back onboard their fuel pod within a 24hr period. The pod will be fully unloaded in 24hrs and the tug will boost the pod back towards the fuel station by then. The PCs cannot be picked up from the pod closer than 3 days from the target. Their pickup ship will have the necessary command codes to modify the sensor logs so that the pickup ship is never recorded.
  5. The PCs arrive in-system and are immediately contacted by the system authorities. A rogue fuel pod is inbound towards the station/planet that the PC’s are at and they are the only ones in range to prevent a possible disaster. The pod is not responding to any commands and the controllers cannot trigger its onboard self-destruct system. The pod is already within the 100-diameter limit of the planet and the PCs will have to make a decision to provide assistance or not. Their choices are to try and destroy it with weapons fire (difficult, since it’s a 50,000 dTon fuel pod), or match course and velocity and ‘nudge’ the fuel pod into a newer, safer heading. No in-system military craft or remote weapons platforms are near enough to respond in time. This scenario is best sprung on the players without warning and force them to come up with a plan after they are already committed to the mission. To make it more interesting, the pod may be under the control of a terrorist organization that will use the onboard thrusters to make life more difficult for the adventurers.