Southern California-based Virgin Orbit has reached a milestone in developing its airborne orbital launch system.

The company says this week it mated a LauncherOne rocket to a special Boeing 747 at Long Beach Airport and will soon begin a series of flights that will culminate with a drop test in which the booster will be released from beneath the jet's left wing.

The system is intended to carry small satellites into orbit.

Virgin Orbit is a sister company of Virgin Galactic, which is developing an air-launched rocket plane for carrying tourists on suborbital flights into space.

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Virgin Orbit said it already has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of launches on contract for a wide range of customers including NASA and the US Defense Department.

If its test flight succeeds, Virgin Orbit will compete against Kiwi-American company Rocket Lab in the small satellite market.

Rocket Lab, which recently opened an assembly facility in Auckland, hopes to stage its first commercial launch in November and reach a weekly launch frequency by 2020.

At the opening, founder Peter Beck said they while there are many startups who aim to compete in the small satellite market, "we're the only ones who have made it to the launchpad."

A completed LauncherOne rocket hangs from the wing of Cosmic Girl, a special Boeing 747 aircraft that is used as the rocket's
A completed LauncherOne rocket hangs from the wing of Cosmic Girl, a special Boeing 747 aircraft that is used as the rocket's "flying launch pad."

On October 18, Rocket Lab named Nasa's Wallops Launch Facility in the US state of Virginia as its first US launch site.

- Associated Press