The electronic payment company PayPal is interested in how money will change hands once tourists and companies are operating in space.

“If those weren’t very complex questions to be answered, it could probably wait,” PayPal president David Marcus told Discovery News.

“But if you’re looking at the first hotel in space in three years, some of these problems need to be resolved prior to space tourism becoming available to the masses in the next five- to seven years,” he said.

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With help from Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the California-based SETI Institute and others, the company on Thursday launched an initiative called PayPal Galactic to examine how commerce can take place in space. (The project has no relation to aspiring spaceflight provider Virgin Galactic which plans to start flying people on a suborbital spaceship as early as next year.)

“If you’re staying at space hotel and you want to buy coffee in the morning, what payment will you use? How will it be regulated? Which government will regulate the transaction?” said Marcus.

PayPal Galactic is not about developing a new company product, he added, though that may come. As side-benefit to the study, PayPal which already uses some location-based mobile payment systems managed by GPS satellites, may come up with alternative ways to do business on Earth.

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“When you think about experiences, you’re only constrained by the reality of your environment,” Marcus said. “It’s very liberating to think about it.”

Chief among the questions to be addressed is what will a cash-free currency be like beyond Earth.

“That’s a big one. Will it be something already established? Crystal? A new space currency that all the governments agree to?” Marcus said.

“We’re launching this program to get the relevant parties to join so we can have a worthwhile conversation,” he added. “Our main goal is to raise awareness.”

Paypal communications director Anuj Nayar said the idea is a natural outgrowth of the company’s founding idea to be a global currency for money transfers and payment systems.

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“We changed the way the world uses money,” Nayar wrote in an email to Discovery News. “We have a vision for the next 15 years. We want to be the world’s first and preferred transfer system that reaches into space.

“Everything we do on Earth we will do in space.  People will need to buy food and pay for entertainment. Companies will need to purchase supplies and pay for labor. We plan to be the first company to make universal space payments a reality so that individuals and private industry can make secure and timely transfers to pay for life’s necessities while in space and on Earth,” Nayar said.

Image: How to pay for doughnuts on the moon: PayPal expects tourists to be visiting space within the next decade. Credit: PayPal