Sir Richard Branson has announced a plan to float his space tourism venture Virgin Galactic on the stock market with a $1.5bn (£1.2bn) valuation.

The deal, creating the first publicly-listed human spaceflight firm, will also see an investment vehicle led by former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya take a stake in the company.

Sir Richard is racing against rivals such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin venture and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to bring tourists into space.

His float plan and tie-up with New York-listed Social Capital Hedosophia will help the company invest in turning Virgin Galactic’s technology into a commercial operation, following two test flights of its spaceship the VSS Unity.

More than 600 people have already paid $80m (£64m) worth of deposits to the company to secure their tickets on the first space flights.

Sir Richard told Sky’s Ian King: Next year I’ll be going up and will start taking the public up.

What this enables us to do is to build many more spaceships and motherships and ramp up the programme.

The businessman first launched the venture in 2004, originally with a plan to offer commercial flights to space by 2007-2008.

But the plan suffered delays and there was a major setback in 2014 when a Virgin Galactic spacecraft crashed during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot.

Sir Richard said he has put close to $1bn into the company, of which he currently owns 80%.

As part of the deal he will be entitled to 80% of a $300m cash pay-out to existing shareholders.

Sir Richard previously turned down a $1bn Saudi investment for his space venture after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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(c) Sky News 2019: Virgin Galactic valued at £1.2bn in flotation plan