Scientists have seen further back in time than ever before. The powerful Hubble telescope is giving astronomers a look at galaxies formed shortly after the birth of the universe.

That was more than 13 billion years ago.

"It is a very important discovery … The original stars that came after the Big Bang were a mystery because they were formed with only hydrogen and helium because those were the only chemical elements present at the time, and the space telescope is now giving us an insight on how this might have happened."

- Francisco Diego, a fellow of astronomy at University College London

NASA scientists are getting very excited about their latest photo album. It is full of pictures of the universe when it was just a baby – snapshots taken shortly after the so-called Big Bang, the even that triggered the first generation of stars.

The experts say the discovery will allow us to learn more about how we came to be.

The universe is estimated to be some 13.7 billion years old – or thousands of millions of years. The newly-discovered galaxies are seen as they looked a few hundred million years after that.

And this is the mind-boggling part – their light is just arriving here on earth now – it has taken that long to get to us.

NASA spent nearly $200bn on its space programme between 1971 and 2011; the average cost per flight of US shuttles is estimated at $1.5bn; the agency's budget for 2012 is $17.7bn; it has launched a total of 131 space shuttle missions between 1982 and 2010.

India's first satellite was launched by Soviet Union in 1975; in 1981 India launched a satellite using its own locally-built rocket; in 2008 it created a record by launching 10 satellites in one go; it has 11 remote-sensing satellites orbiting the earth; nearly 400 million people in India live on less than $1 a day.

"I love Carl Sagan as much as the next guy but when we're running massive budget deficits we should be asking who should be spending this money to investigate the heavens, and I don't think it should be the federal government."

- Max Raskin, a journalist with Businessweek

It is 40 years ago this month since man was last on the moon. But what has been achieved since then? Now man is asking if there is life on Mars, and we have sent a Rover to find out.

But critics argue that we should take a more down-to-earth approach – staying here on terra firma and sorting out problems a little closer to home.

In this episode guests on Inside Story discuss our fascination with outer space, how exploration is helping us here on earth and if all that is worth the cost.

Joining presenter Hazem Sika are: Kamal Chenoy, a professor of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a member of the Right to Food Campaign; Max Raskin, a journalist with Business Week; and Francisco Diego, a senior research fellow in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College London, and the vice-president of the UK Association for Astronomy Education.

"It's very important to know how the earth was formed and the predictions about how development including environment degradation is having on the earth. That is very useful at a certain level – the question is how much has been spent on that and how much is being used for satellite imagery of the world and what is happening here."

Kamal Chenoy, a professor of international studies

The race to reach out to space:

  • Things started to take off in 1957 when the Soviet Union (USSR) launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite
  • It marked the beginning of years of space exploration, and a fierce rivalry with the US
  • The USSR scored another victory in 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space
  • But the US took a giant leap for mankind when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. The moon programme three years later and no one has been back since
  • Instead, the US turned its attention to Mars, landing the Orbiter 'Viking' on the Red Planet in 1975
  • The US launched its first space shuttle in 1981, a programme that was to last until July 2011
  • The International Space Station started to take shape in 1998, and now a joint project between five international space agencies
  • 'Space Ship One' completed the first manned private space flight in 2004
  • The first official commercial flight to the International Space Station lifted off in October, 2012, carrying an unmanned cargo capsule

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope:

  • It has captured and sent back many beautiful images of stars, planets or galaxies
  • It is orbiting above the earth after being dropped off by the space shuttle Discovery in 1990
  • It is named after the American astronomer, Edwin Hubble
  • In all, NASA has four powerful space-based telescopes
  • The Hubble has enabled NASA to work out the age of the universe – some 13.7 billion years old – and helped scientists determine the birth of planets

Source: Al Jazeera