The term is mostly found in science fiction, because such craft have never been constructed. Whilst the Voyager and Pioneer probes have travelled into local interstellar space, the purpose of these unmanned craft was specifically interplanetary and they are not predicted to reach another star system (although Voyager 1 will travel to within 1.7 light years of AC +79 3888 in approximately 40,000 years). Several preliminary designs for starships have been undertaken through exploratory engineering, using feasibility studies with modern technology or technology thought likely to be available in the near future.
To travel between stars in a reasonable time using rocket-like technology requires very high effective exhaust velocity jet, and enormous energy to power this, such as might be provided by fusion power or antimatter.
There are very few scientific studies that investigate the issues in building a starship. Some examples of this include:
- Project Orion (1958–1965), mostly manned interplanetary spacecraft
- Project Daedalus (1973–1978), unmanned interstellar probe
- Project Longshot (1987–1988), unmanned interstellar probe
- Project Icarus (2009–2014), unmanned interstellar probe
- Hundred-Year Starship (2011), manned interstellar craft
- See interstellar probes, interstellar travel
Examined in an October 1973 issue of Analog, the Enzmann Starship proposed using a 12,000 ton ball of frozen deuterium to power thermonuclear powered pulse propulsion units. Twice as long as the Empire State Building and assembled in-orbit, the proposed spacecraft would be part of a larger project preceded by interstellar probes and telescopic observation of target star systems.
The NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program (1996–2002), was a professional scientific study examining advanced spacecraft propulsion systems.
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, which put their passengers into stasis during a long trip. This includes Cryonics-based systems that freeze passengers for the duration of the journey.
- Generation, where the destination will be reached by descendants of the original passengers.
- Relativistic, 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, which can move between places very quickly (transcending current understanding of physics or using interdimensional 'shortcuts' or wormholes).
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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. The alcubierre drive provides a theoretical way of achieving FTL, although it requires negative mass, which has not yet been discovered. Nevertheless, Harold G. White at NASA had design the White–Juday warp-field interferometer to detect a microscopic instance of a warping of space-time according to the Alcubierre drive. An example of a faster-than-light ship is the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Original Series.
- 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.
The following is a listing of some of the most widely known vessels in various science fiction franchises. The most prominent cultural use and one of the earliest common uses of the term starship was in Star Trek: The Original Series.
This list is not exhaustive.
- Andromeda Ascendant (Andromeda)
- Moya (Farscape)
- Heart of Gold (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy)
- HMS Fearless (Honorverse)
- Liberator (Blake's 7)
- NSEA Protector (Galaxy Quest)
- Jupiter 2 (Lost In Space)
- Red Dwarf (Red Dwarf)
- Scorpio (Blake's 7)
- USS Sulaco (Aliens)
- TARDIS (Doctor Who)
- White Star (Babylon 5)
- Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers)
- UNSC Pillar of Autumn (Halo Series)
- High Charity (Halo Series)
- Axiom (WALL-E)
- SSV Normandy (Mass Effect)
- Hyperion (Starcraft)
- USG Ishimura (Dead Space)
- Battlestar Galactica (Battlestar Galactica)
Groups of ships
- Star Trek ships
- Stargate ships
- Star Wars ships
- Battlestar Galactica ships
- Space travel
- Mother ship
- Space battleship
- Unidentified flying object (UFO)
- CineSpaceships (database of spaceships in movies)
-  (Plans to facilitate the construction of starships)
- Starship Dimensions (to-scale size comparisons)
- Starship Names (a Sci-Fi wiki article, outside Wikipedia)