Ray (optics)

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In optics, a ray is an idealized narrow beam of light. Rays are used to model the propagation of light through an optical system, by dividing the real light field up into discrete rays that can be computationally propagated through the system by the techniques of ray tracing.[1] This allows even very complex optical systems to be analyzed mathematically or simulated by computer. Ray tracing uses approximate solutions to Maxwell's equations that are valid as long as the light waves propagate through and around objects whose dimensions are much greater than the light's wavelength. Ray theory does not describe phenomena such as interference and diffraction, which require wave theory (involving the phase of the wave).

There are many special rays that are used in optical modelling to analyze an optical system. These are defined and described below, grouped by the type of system they are used to model.

Interaction with surfaces

File:Rays incident on medium.png
Diagram of rays at a surface
  • An incident ray is a ray of light that strikes a surface. The angle between this ray and the perpendicular or normal to the surface is the angle of incidence.
  • The reflected ray corresponding to a given incident ray, is the ray that represents the light reflected by the surface. The angle between the surface normal and the reflected ray is known as the angle of reflection. The Law of Reflection says that for a specular (non-scattering) surface, the angle of reflection always equals the angle of incidence.
  • The refracted ray or transmitted ray corresponding to a given incident ray represents the light that is transmitted through the surface. The angle between this ray and the normal is known as the angle of refraction, and it is given by Snell's Law.
  • If the material is birefringent, the refracted ray may split into ordinary and extraordinary rays, which experience different indexes of refraction when passing through the birefringent material.

Optical systems

  • A meridional ray is a ray that is confined to the y-z plane, where z points along the optical axis of the system, and y is perpendicular to this axis.
  • The marginal ray in an optical system is the meridional ray that starts at the point where the object crosses the optical axis, and touches the edge of the aperture stop of the system.[2] This ray is useful, because it crosses the optical axis again at the locations where an image will be formed. The distance of the marginal ray from the optical axis at the locations of the entrance pupil and exit pupil defines the sizes of each pupil (since the pupils are images of the aperture stop).
  • The chief ray in an optical system is the meridional ray that starts at the edge of the object, and passes through the center of the aperture stop.[2] This ray crosses the optical axis at the locations of the pupils. As such chief rays are equivalent to the rays in a pinhole camera. The distance between the chief ray and the optical axis at an image location defines the size of the image. The marginal and chief rays together define the Lagrange invariant, which characterizes the throughput or etendue of the optical system.[3]
  • A skew ray is a ray that originates from an object point in the y-z plane, but does not propagate in this plane. Such a ray will intersect the entrance pupil at some arbitrary coordinates (xp,yp).
  • A tangential ray is a ray that intersects the entrance pupil at xp=0. This is just another name for a meridional ray.
  • A sagittal ray or transverse ray is a skew ray that intersects the pupil at yp=0.

Fiber optics

See also


  1. Moore, Ken (2005-07-25). "What is a ray?". ZEMAX Users' Knowledge Base. Retrieved 2008-05-30.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Greivenkamp, John E. (2004). Field Guide to Geometrical Optics. SPIE Field Guides vol. FG01. SPIE. ISBN 0-8194-5294-7., p. 25.
  3. Greivenkamp (2004), p. 28.

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