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Space bucks: PayPal begins work on an off-world monetary system

PayPal has gathered together a team of scientists to address a question that science-fiction writers have been dealing with for decades: How will we handle money in outer space?

"Everybody's focusing on the 'how' of going into space ... but nobody's thinking about what you're going to do when you're up there," Anuj Nayar, senior director of communications and social media at PayPal, told NBC News.

To think more deeply about space bucks, the online-payment company has enlisted the Space Tourism Society, the SETI Institute and even Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin for what it calls the PayPal Galactic initiative.

"Trips to Mars, the moon, even orbit will require we provide astronauts and astro-tourists with as many comforts from home as possible, including how to pay each other. Whether it’s paying a bill, even helping a family member on Earth, we’ll need access to money," Aldrin said, in a statement released in advance of Thursday's formal kickoff at the SETI Institute's Silicon Valley headquarters.

How to pay in space
Today's astronauts rely on earthbound representatives to take care of their financial details while they're in orbit. Signing over power of attorney is standard procedure for space station astronauts. But financial matters could get more complicated for future tourists who go into space. "The reality is that there's a host of people on the ground who look after the astronauts who are up there right now," Nayar said. "We don't have that infrastructure. We don't have those people and systems to make what we want to happen a reality."

The first space tourists could be launched as early as next year, aboard rocket planes that are being developed by Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace. Those suborbital jaunts are expected to last only a few hours — but within the next few years, it's conceivable that private-sector passengers will be going into orbit for extended stays aboard commercial space stations built by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace or Russia's Orbital Technologies and RSC Energia.

John Spencer, founder and president of the Space Tourism Society, said it's not too early to start thinking about commerce and payment systems designed for space travelers. "When I got the call from our PayPal friends, I just remember smiling and thinking it's a good time for this group to get involved," he told NBC News.

The SETI Institute is also lending its expertise, and in return, PayPal is lending support to the institute's research by setting up a crowdfunding campaign powered by FundRazr. "If we in fact are successful at finding ways to work and play in space, we're going to want to be there too, you and me," the SETI Institute's Jill Tarter said in a video about PayPal's initiative. "And inevitably it's going to need some kind of monetary currency."

Cash-free in zero-G?
The PayPal Galactic initiative will look at the sorts of issues already encountered on Earth — such as fraud protection, hidden banking charges, identity theft and unanticipated currency swings — plus other problems peculiar to the space environment. "One thing is clear," PayPal's president, David Marcus, said in Thursday's statement, "we won't be using cash in space."

Nayar said PayPal's engineers have been "salivating" over the prospect of building a monetary system from the ground up. "If we were creating a new payment system, I doubt it would look anything like the one that exists today," he said.

He said that PayPal, which was founded 15 years ago and acquired by eBay in 2002, sees the initiative as a long-term "conversation" that could eventually include other technology companies.

"What PayPal Galactic is doing is getting the right people to ask the right questions. We need to form a checklist of all the issues to consider — from taxes and regulations in space, to handling ISP addresses from orbit," Nayar said in an email. "Once we have these questions down, we can start answering them and provide the framework for off-world commerce."

He told NBC News that "the borderless thinking that were using to create a commercial reality in space could lead to some fantastic innovations on Earth as well."

How much is that in quatloos?
When it comes to money in space, PayPal is going where many books and TV shows have gone before: Sci-fi writers have created a wide spectrum of extraterrestrial currencies, ranging from the solari of "Dune" to the cubits of "Battlestar Galactica" to the spacebucks of "Spaceballs." The civilizations of "Star Trek" deal in Federation credits, Klingon darseks and even Triskelion quatloos for the occasional death match.

All those might make for fine space currencies, but there's one monetary unit that PayPal Galactic should definitely stay away from: the Triganic Pu, described by the late humorist Douglas Adams in "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe."

"Its exchange rate of eight Ningis to one Pu is simple enough, but since a Ningi is a triangular rubber coin 6,800 miles along each side, no one has ever collected enough to own one Pu," Adams wrote. "Ningis are not negotiable currency, because the Galactibanks refuse to deal in fiddling small change."

Update for 1 a.m. ET June 27: The partners in the PayPal Galactic effort will discuss the project at a news conference that's to be webcast via from the SETI Institute at 9 a.m. PT (noon ET). One of my pals on Twitter, NRAO's Tania Burchell, has already pointed out that PayPal's idea isn't new: Travelex created a space currency called the QUID (Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination) back in 2007.

Update for 9 p.m. ET June 27: NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said astronauts on the space station generally use family members or other intermediaries to pay for things on the ground. There was an instance of online commerce that came up in 2010, however. "They have the Internet up there, so Jeff Williams actually ordered flowers for his wife once it got up and running," Byerly told NBC News.

More about our future life in space:

Alan Boyle is NBC News Digital's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews' stories about science and space,sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.