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By Wikipedia,
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Artist's conception of the British Interplanetary Society design for Project Daedalus, a real-world concept.
Artist's conception of the British Interplanetary Society design for Project Daedalus, a real-world concept.

A starship is a theoretical spacecraft designed for traveling between the stars, as opposed to a vehicle designed for orbital spaceflight or interplanetary travel.

The term is mostly found in science fiction, as humanity has not yet constructed such vehicles (while the Voyager and Pioneer probes have traveled into local interstellar space, they are not generally considered starships, mainly because they are both unpowered and unmanned). However, exploratory engineering has been undertaken on several preliminary designs and feasibility studies for starships that could be built with modern technology or technology thought likely to be available in the near future. For examples of such studies, see Project Daedalus, Project Orion, and Project Longshot.

Fictional types

A common literary device is to posit a faster-than-light propulsion system (such as warp drive) or travel through hyperspace, although some starships may be outfitted for centuries-long journeys of slower-than-light travel. Other designs posit a way to boost the ship to near-lightspeed, allowing relatively "quick" travel (i.e. decades, not centuries) to nearer stars. This results in a general categorization of the kinds of starships:

  • Sleeper ships, which put their passengers into stasis during a long trip.
  • Generation ships, where the destination will be reached by descendants of the original passengers.
  • Relativistic ships, taking advantage of time dilation at close-to-light-speeds, so long trips will seem much shorter (but still take the same amount of time for outside observers).
  • Faster-than-light ships, which can move between places very quickly (transcending current understanding of physics or using interdimensional 'shortcuts').

Fictional elements

Certain common elements are found in most fiction that discusses starships.


  • Fiction that discusses slower-than-light starships is relatively rare, since the time scales are so long. Instead of describing the interaction with the outside world, those fictions tend to focus on setting the whole story within the world of the (often very large) starship during its long travels. Sometimes the starship is a world, in perception or reality.


Travel at velocities greater than the speed of light is impossible according to the known laws of physics, although apparent FTL is not excluded by general relativity. Science fiction has, however, provided many examples.

  • Such starships are typically large, multi-passenger vehicles (compared to starfighters). They range in size from small personal yachts and courier ships, up to vast bulk containers (used for intersystem shipping) and enormous warships.
  • Starships are usually depicted as operating under laws and guidelines similar to real-world seagoing vessels. The primary reason for this concept (beyond artistic license) is that deep space is an even more hazardous environment than the open sea, and so extreme caution would have to be taken in all starship operations. A side effect of this is that spacegoing fleets, especially space militaries, are usually described as being organized similar to modern Earth navies.
  • A starship may be fitted with a wide variety of engines, weapons, equipment, and internal compartments. Small freighters used for smuggling are typically fast, modified to avoid detection, are often heavily armed, and may have secret holds for hiding contraband cargo. Large container ships usually have little in the way of shielding or weaponry, but have huge, powerful engines necessary for moving vast quantities of cargo through (or between) star systems.
  • Passenger vessels, are often described as being similar to modern ocean liners, containing luxurious passenger cabins, gambling halls, showrooms, restaurants, and lounges.
  • Warships contain crew quarters, extensive weaponry and shielding, massive engines, sophisticated sensor and communications arrays, and often have a detachment of soldiers trained in assaulting and capturing enemy spacecraft or targets on planetary surfaces. Warships are generally heavily armed, have redundant power and shielding systems, armor. In some science-fiction universes like the Honorverse, spaceship battles are reminiscent of naval combat in reality or in history, the parallels usually being explained (if at all) as a reason of the effects or limitations of advanced combat technologies.


  • Exceedingly large spacegoing craft (for example the Death Star of the Star Wars universe) are typically not referred to as 'starships' (but see 'slower-than-light ships' above). Terms like (artificial) planetoid may be considered to be more accurate.
  • Space stations and other structures intended to orbit a celestial body or serve as a point of contact/maintenance/docking station for other ships are not usually called starships, even if they can move under their own power.

Fictional examples

The following is a listing of some of the most widely known vessels in various science fiction franchises:

Individual ships

Groups of ships

See also

External links

Text from Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License; additional terms may apply.

Published in July 2009.

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