A retroreflector is a device that sends light or other radiation back where it came from regardless of the angle of incidence, unlike a mirror, which does that only if the mirror is exactly perpendicular to the light beam. This effect can be commonly obtained in two ways:

A retroflector may consist of many very small versions of these structures incorporated in a thin sheet or in paint. In the case of paint containing glass beads, the paint glues the beads to the surface where retroreflection is required, and the beads protrude, their diameter being about twice the thickness of the paint.

A third, much less common way of producing a retroreflector is to use the nonlinear optical phenomenon of phase conjugation. This technique is used in advanced optical systems such as high-power lasers and optical transmission lines.


Retroreflectors on roads

Retroreflection (sometimes called retroflection) is used on road surfaces, road signs, vehicles and clothing (large parts of the surface of special safety clothing, less on regular coats). When the headlights of a car illuminate a retroflective surface, the reflected light is directed towards the car and its driver, and not wasted by going in all directions as with diffuse reflection. However, a pedestrian can see a retroreflective surface in the dark only if there is a light source directly between them and the reflector, e.g. a torch they carry, or directly behind them, e.g. a car approaching from behind. "Cat's eyes" are a particular type of retroreflector embedded in the road surface, used mostly in the UK and southern parts of the United States.

Corner reflectors are better at sending the light back to the source over long distances, while spheres are better at sending the light to a receiver somewhat off-axis from the source, as when the light from headlights is reflected into the driver's eyes.

Retroreflectors can be embedded in the road (level with the road surface), or can be raised above the road surface. Raised reflectors are visible for a very long distance (typically 0.5-1 kilometer or more), while sunken reflectors are only visible at very close range due to the higher angle required to properly reflect the light. Raised reflectors are not generally used in areas that regularly experience snow during winter, as passing snowplows will tear them off the roadway. The stress on the roadway caused by cars running over any embedded objects also contributes to accelerated wear and pothole formation.

Retroreflective road paint is thus very popular in Canada and increasingly the northern parts of the United States, as it is not affected by the passage of snowplows and does not affect the interior of the roadway. Where weather permits, embedded retroreflectors are preferred as they last much longer than road paint, which is weathered by the elements and ground away by the passage of vehicles.

Retroreflectors on the Moon

The Apollo 11, 14, and 15 missions left retro-reflectors on the Moon as part of the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment. They are commonly considered to be one of the strongest pieces of evidence against a Moon landing hoax.

Retroreflectors and invisibility

Retroreflective clothing, combined with a properly set up camera and projector, can be used to achieve the effect of partial invisibility when viewed from a single direction.

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