A starship is a spaceship designed for interstellar travel, specifically between star systems. Science fiction abounds with tales of such ships. Space-going vessels that are not intended for travel between star systems are often referred to as spaceships.
Humanity has not yet constructed any true starships, although many scientists and enthusiasts have discussed proposals for interstellar travel. This article focuses on starships as they are encountered in science fiction.
A common literary device is to posit a faster-than-light propulsion system (such as warp drive) or travel through hyperspace, although some starship stories have their craft 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.
- Starships that take advantage of relativistic time dilation; a long trip will seem much shorter.
- Faster-than-light starships which can move between places very quickly.
Different authors and different stories will, of course, imagine different kinds of starships. 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. Faster-than-light starships are often imagined as analogous to sea-going ships.
Starships are typically large, multi-passenger vehicles (cf starfighter). They range in size from small personal yachts and courier ships, up to vast bulk containers (used for intrasystem shipping) and enormous warships. Exceedingly large spacegoing craft (e.g. the Death Star) are typically not referred to as 'starships,' since words like 'artificial planet' are often more accurate. Space stations and other structures intended to orbit a heavenly body are not usually called starships, even if they can move under their own power. In order to save costs, many ships are usually built to the same plans. In some universes, a successful class can have production runs reach into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of units and see service with dozens of customers.
Starships virtually always operate under similar laws and guidelines as real-world seagoing vessels. The primary reason is that deep space is an even more hazardous environment than the deep sea, and so extreme caution must be taken in all starship operations. A side effect of this is that spacegoing fleets, especially space militaries, are usually organized similar to modern Earth navies.
Depending on original design, recent history, current intended use, local laws, space piracy, and the ethics of the current owner, 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, such as luxury liners, are often similar to modern cruise ships, 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 usually a detachment of non-naval soldiers trained in assaulting and capturing enemy spacecraft, targets on planetary surfaces, or both.