For all your answers to first encounters read here:
Jades First Encounters Page
The game is freeware and well worth playing. You'll have to setup dos however as it won't work from within windows.
Essentially, it's the same as frontier but with more ships and an ongoing plot (staring some famous elite aliens) in which you can partake at your own discretion. You've still got complete freedom and can miss out on any extras if you so wish.
As well as a background story, missions/fun events can be undertaken by reading the four intergalactic newspapers. The first one if I remember rightly is a race across star systems. If you win you'll get a cash prize and a mention in later newspaper additions! There are also plots where you steal items and get listed in the papers as a criminal!
These newspapers really add feeling to the game as you keep up to date with the galaxies latest news.
By staying informed you'll end up picking up some invaluable items, including ships beyond you wildest dreams.
All in all this could have been one of the best games ever, but unfortunately it was rushed and incomplete. You can still finish the game, but the story isn't as dynamic as initially planned.
Hopefully Elite 4 will perfect the process. This really could end up an absolutely stunning title if done right.