A starship, starcraft, or interstellar spacecraft is a theoretical spacecraft designed for traveling between planetary systems.
The term is mostly found in science fiction. Reference to a "star-ship" appears as early as 1882 in Oahspe: A New Bible.
While NASA's Voyager and Pioneer probes have traveled into local interstellar space, the purpose of these uncrewed 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 Gliese 445 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.
In April 2016, scientists announced Breakthrough Starshot, a Breakthrough Initiatives program, to develop a proof-of-concept fleet of small centimeter-sized light sail spacecraft named StarChip, capable of making the journey to Alpha Centauri, the nearest extrasolar star system, at speeds of 20% and 15% of the speed of light, taking between 20 and 30 years to reach the star system, respectively, and about 4 years to notify Earth of a successful arrival.
In November 2018, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced that SpaceX was renaming the second stage and spaceship of the Big Falcon Rocket, a fully reusable launch vehicle and spacecraft system, to Starship. Though the spacecraft does not possess any reasonable interstellar capability, Musk defended the name by claiming that "later versions will."
Artist's conception of British Interplanetary Society's Project Daedalus
(1978), a fusion powered interstellar probe
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:
The Bussard ramjet is an idea to use nuclear fusion of interstellar gas to provide propulsion.
Examined in an October 1973 issue of Analog, the Enzmann Starship proposed using a 12,000-ton ball of frozen deuterium to power 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 literaryfaster-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:
device is to posit a
- 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, in which the destination would 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 (using inter-dimensional shortcuts or wormholes). There is a theoretical means of achieving FTL (Faster-than-light) travel within our current understanding of physics however; it is also known as a "warp drive" and was introduced by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. The paper, entitled "The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity", showed that space itself could be topographically warped to create a local region of spacetime wherein the region ahead of the "warp bubble" is compressed, allowed to resume normalcy within the bubble, and then rapidly expanded behind the bubble creating an effect that results in apparent FTL travel. His paper showed that all this could be achieved within the pre-established confines of General Relativity, without the introduction of wormholes.
There are 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.