Air Force's Secret X-37B Space Plane Just Scored a Big Win

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The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the Air Force's unmanned, reusable space plane after it landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on June 16., 2012. (Image: Boeing)

The Air Force's secret X-37B space plane just boosted its public profile, taking home the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy for advancing "the boundaries of flight and space exploration," according to an Aug. 13 service release.

"As the world's only autonomous, reusable space plane, it continues to contribute to our understanding of both space and air flight," said Jim Albaugh, chairman of the National Aeronautic Association, which sponsors the competition.

The trophy has been given out annually for American achievement in aviation and space since 1911. Previous winners include Orville Wright, Howard Hughes, the Apollo 11 lunar landing team, Apollo 8, Mercury 7 and, more recently, the International Space Station.

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This year, X-37B beat out finalists including the updated Hubble Space Telescope; the latest iteration of the Airborne Collision Avoidance System team; Project Heaviside, "a high-performance electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle;" the Bombardier Global 7500; Gulfstream G500 and G600 business jets; and the Magni500 electric propulsion system.

"Underscoring the importance of space to the nation, the Collier Trophy celebrates the record-setting mission of the X-37B," Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in a statement. "Most Americans use space daily for navigation, information and communication. Sophisticated and uncrewed, the X-37B advances reusable space plane technologies and operates experiments in space that are returned for further examination on Earth."

Officials lauded the win for both the Air Force and the new U.S. Space Force. "The X-37 is a successful example of integrated operations between the Air Force, Space Force and government-industry partnerships," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown Jr. "Reusable space vehicle technologies are a significant contributor to accelerating capabilities for the Department of Defense and the nation."

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is a reusable, multi-purpose and unmanned system. It is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit, where it can perform long-duration space technology testing with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis, according to the release.

"The X-37B team win of the 2019 National Aeronautic Association's Robert J. Collier Trophy exemplifies the kind of lean, agile and innovative technological development our nation needs to secure its interests," Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, Space Force chief of space operations, said in a statement. "The ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth is unique to the X-37B and enables the U.S. to more efficiently and effectively develop space power to maintain superiority in the space domain."

According to the Air Force, the X-37B has successfully conducted six missions, all of which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, beginning on April 22, 2010.

In 2019, the X-37B finished a 780-day on-orbit endurance mission, breaking the previous record of 718 days, which it also set.

To date, it has logged more than 2,865 days and traveled more than 1 billion miles in orbit, according to the Air Force.

-- Bing Xiao can be reached at bingxiao2020@u.northwestern.edu.

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