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A retroreflector (sometimes called a retroflector or cataphote) is a device or surface that reflects light back to its source with a minimum scattering of light. An electromagnetic wave front is reflected back along a vector that is parallel to but opposite in direction from the wave's source. The device or surface's angle of incidence is greater than zero. This is unlike a planar mirror, which does this only if the mirror is exactly perpendicular to the wave front, having a zero angle of incidence.


Types of retroreflectors

Retroreflection is usually obtained in the following ways:[1]

  • with a set of three mutually perpendicular mirrors that form a corner (a corner reflector or corner cube)
  • with reflecting and refracting optical elements arranged so that the focal surface of the refractive element coincides with the reflective surface, typically a transparent sphere and a spherical mirror. This same effect can be achieved with a single transparent sphere provided that the refractive index of the material is exactly two times the refractive index of the medium from which the radiation is incident. In that case, the sphere surface behaves as a concave spherical mirror with the required curvature for retroreflection. This is conventionally known as a cat's eye retroreflector in either configuration.

The term cat's eye derives from the resemblance of the cat's eye retroreflector to the optical system that produces the well-known phenomenon of "glowing eyes" or eyeshine in cats and other vertebrates (which are only reflecting light, rather than actually glowing). The combination of the eye's lens and the aqueous humor form the refractive converging system, while the tapetum lucidum behind the retina forms the spherical concave mirror. Because the function of the eye is to form an image on the retina, an eye focused on a distant object has a focal surface that approximately follows the reflective tapetum lucidum structure,[citation needed] which is the condition required to form a good retroreflection.

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