Deep in the Chilean desert, the tip of a 3,000-meter (9,800- feet) high mountain was blasted off on Thursday to create the site for a telescope that will be the world's largest and that could bring science closer to the answer of whether there is life elsewhere in the universe.
The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will have a primary mirror 39 meters (128 feet) in diameter when it is completed in 2024, allowing it to gather around fifteen times more light than the largest optical telescopes currently functioning.
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, an indicator of a biological process.
Such signs – if indeed they exist – could offer mankind the opportunity to detect the presence of extraterrestrial life for the first time.
Its operator, the European Southern Observatory, says 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 center of the Milky Way.
"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.
The Cerro Amazones peak was due to lose an estimated 30 metres (100 feet) of height after the blasting, as engineers created a plateau for the observatory to be built upon.
It is located in Chile's Atacama desert, the driest in the world, where cloudless skies provide ideal observing conditions. 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 ESO has previously said the cost of the E-ELT would be just over 1 billion euros ($1.36 billion), funded by its 14 member states.