This is an article from the fall 2017 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

Every year, Mario Mateo brings a trash can lid to Chile and looks at the stars. 

At least, the object looks like the round metal lid of a trash can. But it’s a bit stranger than that. The big metal disc — about the size of a snow sled — has been studded with a constellation of holes drilled through the surface. Red, blue, maroon, and teal doodles use tangled lines to connect some of the holes, circle several, and label others with cryptic names and reference numbers. People at the airport might take one look at his gear and mistake Mateo for something other than a tenured professor — given his old T-shirt, beat-up sneakers, bushy white mustache that matches the tufts of hair orbiting his head, and unique luggage — but one of those leaky metal lids hangs on the wall of his office in LSA’s Department of Astronomy.

The “plug plates,” Mateo calls them, have drastically increased the number of stars he can view and measure through a telescope: an unprecedented 256 celestial objects at a time. He and his grad students precisely map the pinpoints of light they want to observe in the Chilean sky, then drill holes at those points on the disc. Braids of fiber optic cables pierce the back of the plate, where Mateo plugs each of the holes with its own wire by hand. With the help of a telescope, the fiber optics collect light from each target star glinting through the atmosphere.