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Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson takes part in a news conference at Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, N.M., on July 11.Joe Skipper/Reuters

Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit is going public through a merger with a blank-cheque vehicle in a deal that values it at US$3.2-billion and includes an investment from Boeing Co., it said on Monday.

The small satellite launch service provider’s deal with NextGen Acquisition Corp. II also includes a private investment in public equity (PIPE) of US$100-million. Boeing and AE Industrial Partners participated in the PIPE round, besides other investors.

Shares of NextGen were up 2.4 per cent in premarket trading.

Firefly, U.S.-New Zealand startup Rocket Lab, and Mr. Branson’s Virgin Orbit are seen as front-runners in a new breed of firms building miniaturized launch systems to cash in on the exponential growth of compact satellites expected in the coming years.

These firms offer a unique “air-launch” method of sending satellites to orbit with small-launch systems.

Blank-cheque companies, also known as special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), use capital they raise through an initial public offering to merge with a private firm and take it public.

Virgin Orbit, which was spun off from Mr. Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. in 2017, reached space for the first time in January when it delivered 10 NASA satellites to orbit, after a failed attempt last year.

The company is led by aviation veteran Dan Hart, a former executive at Boeing. Virgin Orbit’s government services unit VOX Space LLC is selling launches to the U.S. military. The company won a US$35-million U.S. Space Force contract for three missions last year.

The deal with NextGen Acquisition is expected to provide US$483-million in proceeds for the combined company. Virgin Orbit will list on the Nasdaq, post the closing of the merger, under the ticker symbol “VORB.”

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