British scientists hope to lead the way in developing the world's largest telescope to scan space for life on other planets and clues to the origin of the universe.
The nearly £900m European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is expected to be built in Chile over the next decade and will be tens of times more sensitive than any current ground-based optical telescope.
The Government-funded Science And Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is providing £3.5m for UK astronomers, predominantly at Durham and Oxford Universities, to help them secure contracts to develop instruments for the project.
Professor Colin Cunningham, from STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), said: "This funding from STFC will allow the UK to put itself in the best possible position to develop key instruments for the E-ELT with its international partners.
"The fact that ESO (European Southern Observatory) has already highly rated the early designs for these instruments is testament to the world-leading expertise of our scientists and engineers."
Scientists from across Europe are working on developing the telescope, which will have a mirror 39 metres in diameter, giving it a larger reflecting area than those of all the other research telescopes in existence.
The huge mirror will allow astronomers to probe deeper in the Universe to detect light from the forming of the first galaxies and provide high resolution images of celestial bodies, such as planets.
The mirror will be constructed from more than 1,000 separate hexagonal pieces and a Welsh company is currently involved in producing prototypes for the design.
The telescope - which will be housed in a dome with a footprint the size of a football stadium - is to be constructed in Chile's Atacama Desert, which is already the site of the current largest optical telescope.
The Very Large Telescope - which has four eight-metre mirrors - gave us the first direct images of planets outside our solar system and made important observations of black holes.