A blast on the peak of Cerro Armazones is seen during the levelling of the summit�

Mountain top blasted off for giant telescope

The tip of a 3,000m-high mountain deep in the Chilean desert has been blasted off to create the site for the world’s largest optical and infrared telescope.

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will have a primary mirror 39m in diameter when it is completed in 2024, allowing it to gather around 15 times more light than the largest optical telescopes currently functioning.

The Cerro Amazones peak was due to lose an estimated 30m of height after the blasting, as engineers created a plateau for the observatory to be built upon in Chile's Atacama desert.

It is the driest desert in the world, where cloudless skies provide ideal observing conditions, and many of the world's top telescopes are situated in the area including the ALMA array, which had its final antennae delivered this week.

"The E-ELT will no doubt produce discoveries that we simply can't imagine today and it will surely inspire numerous people around the world to think about science, technology and our place in the universe," said ESO director general Tim de Zeeuw at a ceremony to celebrate the blasting.

It will be so powerful that it should be able to detect gases in the atmospheres of certain kinds of planets outside our solar system and even biomarker molecules that indicate biological process, potentially offering the opportunity to detect the presence of extraterrestrial life.

Its operator, the European Southern Observatory, said the telescope should also be able to find more extra-solar Earth-like rocky planets, building on discoveries made by space observatory Kepler and others in recent years.

It may also provide researchers with important pieces in the cosmology jigsaw puzzle, from probing the fundamental laws of physics and dark energy to looking more closely at interactions around the super-massive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.

The ESO has previously said the cost of the E-ELT would be just over €1bn (£800m), funded by its 14 member states.

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