Control Beam Path Through a Corner-Cube Retroflector

Control Beam Path Through a Corner-Cube Retroflector

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How does alignment affect the beam path through a retroreflector?



Labeled sextants of a retroreflector illustrated in 2D
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Figure 2: There are six possible sequences of reflections for a beam. The zone in which the first reflection occurs determines the sequence. These maps apply to beams approximately parallel with the retroreflector's normal axis. The beam paths are indcated by arrows, and dots mark reflections.

Labeled Sextants of a cube retroreflector
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Figure 1: The three reflective faces of a corner-cube retroreflector are shown in false color and with numerical labels assigned to each half. Retroreflectors are designed to reflect an incident beam once from each face and provide an output beam parallel to the input.

Example beam path through a hollow retroreflector (In 5 Out 2)
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Figure 4: Shifting the position of the first reflection to below the diagonal of the red face causes the next reflection to occur from the yellow face. After the third reflection, from the blue face, the beam exits the retroreflector travelling parallel to but shifted from the output beam in Figure 3.

Example beam path through a hollow retroreflector (In 4 Out 1)
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Figure 3: When the first reflection occurs above the diagonal of the red face, and the beam is parallel to the retroreflector's normal axis, the second reflection occurs from the blue face. The beam then reflects from the yellow face before exiting the retroreflector.

Beams output from corner-cube retroreflectors travel parallel to the input beam, but in the opposite direction. The input beam can be aligned to the vertex or to a point on one of the three faces. The input and output beams are colinear if the input beam is aligned to the vertex. The two beams will be separated if the input beam spot does not overlap the vertex.

Input beams aligned to one of the retroreflector's faces will reflect from that face and then the other two before exiting the retroreflector. For a range of incident angles, there are six possibilities for the order in which the beam will reflect from the three different faces. lt can be useful to select the path through the retroreflector for reasons that include optimal beam positioning and minimizing polarization effects.

For a beam to follow a particular sequence of reflections, it is not sufficient to align the beam so that it is incident on a specific face. The beam must also be incident on the proper half of that face. 

Tracing the Beam Path
When looking into the vertex of the retroreflector, reflective effects make it possible to see the six halves of the three faces. Here, they are identified using dashed diagonal lines (Figure 1). In addition, the three faces of the retroreflector are shaded with false color for illustrative purposes. The normal axis is not shown, but it passes through the vertex and is equidistant from all three faces.

The six different possible reflection sequences can vary with angle of incidence. The maps in Figure 2 apply to beams nearly parallel with the normal axis. While a hollow retroreflector is used for these illustrations, these sequences of reflections also apply to prism retroreflecting mirrors.

The position of the first reflection determines which sequence of reflections the beam will follow through the retroreflector. The beam always exits from a different face than it entered.

Figures 3 and 4 illustrate the two orders of reflections that can occur when the first reflection occurs from the left-most vertical face. The incident beam is parallel to the retroreflector's normal axis.

When the first reflection occurs above the diagonal, as shown in Figure 3, the last reflection occurs from the horizontal (yellow) mirror. However, locating the first reflection below the diagonal results in a last reflection from the other vertical (blue) mirror. The output beams of these two cases are parallel to, but shifted from, one another.

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Date of Last Edit: July 8, 2020

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