The spacecraft Dawn is the first true interplanetary craft, according to this article in Scientific American. She can travel to one planetary body, stop there in orbit for a while, then move on to another and stop to orbit it and gather data, then… Well, you get the idea. Dawn uses a trick out of Star Trek to help conserve fuel for her journey – she slingshots around planets (specifically Mars) to build speed without using thrusters.
How awesome is it that NASA is using Star Trek technology for actual space travel?! I mean sure, NASA probably thought of it first, or at least did the math to make sure it would really work, but it’s still Trek tech. I’m also jazzed that when Dawn does need additional speed, she has ion plasma thrusters. The controlled venting of plasma will give her the extra push she needs to reach her destinations. Not quite the same mental picture as Geordi yelling ‘She’s venting plasma, Captain!’ and running madly through Engineering, but close enough to make the leap.) And the combined thrust from the plasma and the slingshot around Mars will spend the Dawn whizzing along at 24,600 mph – the fastest any man-made craft has ever gone. Wow. I’m having another ‘Go NASA!’ moment.