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14. Mathematics for Orbits: Ellipses, Parabolas, Hyperbolas

Michael Fowler

Preliminaries: Conic Sections

Ellipses, parabolas and hyperbolas can all be generated by cutting a cone with a plane (see diagrams, from Wikimedia Commons). Taking the cone to be and substituting the in that equation from the planar equation where is the vector perpendicular to the plane from the origin to the plane, gives a quadratic equation in This translates into a quadratic equation in the plane -- take the line of intersection of the cutting plane with the plane as the axis in both, then one is related to the other by a scaling To identify the conic, diagonalized the form, and look at the coefficients of If they are the same sign, it is an ellipse, opposite, a hyperbola. The parabola is the exceptional case where one is zero, the other equates to a linear term.

It is instructive to see how an important property of the ellipse follows immediately from this construction

File:ConicSection ellipse.PNG

. The slanting plane in the figure cuts the cone in an ellipse. Two spheres inside the cone, having circles of contact with the cone , are adjusted in size so that they both just touch the plane, at points respectively.

It is easy to see that such spheres exist, for example start with a tiny sphere inside the cone near the point, and gradually inflate it, keeping it spherical and touching the cone, until it touches the plane. Now consider a pointon the ellipse. Draw two lines: one fromto the pointwhere the small sphere touches, the other up the cone, aiming for the vertex, but stopping at the point of intersection with the circle Both these lines are tangents to the small sphere, and so have the same length. (The tangents to a sphere from a point outside it form a cone, they are all of equal length.) Now repeat with We find that the distances to the circles measured along the line through the vertex. So in the obvious notation -- are therefore evidently the foci of the ellipse.

The Ellipse

Squashed Circles and Gardeners

The simplest nontrivial planetary orbit is a circle: is centered at the origin and has radius An ellipse is a circle scaled (squashed) in one direction, so an ellipse centered at the origin with semimajor axis and semiminor axis has equation

in the standard notation, a circle of radius scaled by a factor in thedirection. (It's usual to orient the larger axis along)

A circle can also be defined as the set of points which are the same distancefrom a given point, and an ellipse can be defined as the set of points such that the sum of the distances from two fixed points is a constant length (which must obviously be greater than the distance between the two points!). This is sometimes called the gardener's definition: to set the outline of an elliptic flower bed in a lawn, a gardener would drive in two stakes, tie a loose string between them, then pull the string tight in all different directions to form the outline.

In the diagram, the stakes are at , the red lines are the string, is an arbitrary point on the ellipse.

is called the semimajor axis length , the semiminor axis, length .

are called the foci (plural of focus).

Notice first that the string has to be of length , because it must stretch along the major axis from to then back to , and for that configuration there's a double length of string along and a single length from to . But the length is the same as , so the total length of string is the same as the total length

Suppose now we put at. Since and the string has length, the length

We get a useful result by applying Pythagoras' theorem to the triangle

(We shall use this shortly.)

Evidently, for a circle,


The eccentricityof the ellipse is defined by

Eccentric just means off center, this is how far the focus is off the center of the ellipse, as a fraction of the semimajor axis. The eccentricity of a circle is zero. The eccentricity of a long thin ellipse is just below one.

and on the diagram are called the foci of the ellipse (plural of focus) because if a point source of light is placed at , and the ellipse is a mirror, it will reflect -- and therefore focus -- all the light to .

Equivalence of the Two Definitions

We need to verify, of course, that this gardener's definition of the ellipse is equivalent to the squashed circle definition. From the diagram, the total string length

and squaring both sides of

then rearranging to have the residual square root by itself on the left-hand side, then squaring again,


from which, using we find

Ellipse in Polar Coordinates

In fact, in analyzing planetary motion, it is more natural to take the origin of coordinates at the center of the Sun rather than the center of the elliptical orbit.

It is also more convenient to take coordinates instead of coordinates, because the strength of the gravitational force depends only on . Therefore, the relevant equation describing a planetary orbit is the equation with the origin at one focus, here we follow the standard usage and choose the origin at

For an ellipse of semi major axis  and eccentricity  the equation is:

This is also often written

where is the semi-latus rectum, the perpendicular distance from a focus to the curve (so) , see the diagram below: but notice again that this equation has as its origin! (For .)

(It's easy to prove using Pythagoras' theorem, .)

The directrix: writing the equation for the ellipse can also be written as


where (the origin being the focus).

The line is called the directrix.

For any point on the ellipse, its distance from the focus is times its distance from the directrix.

Deriving the Polar Equation from the Cartesian Equation

Note first that (following standard practice) the coordinates and used here have different origins!

Writingin the Cartesian equation,

that is, with slight rearrangement,

This is a quadratic equation forand can be solved in the usual fashion, but looking at the coefficients, it's evidently a little easier to solve the corresponding quadratic for

The solution is:

from which

where we drop the other root because it gives negative for example for This establishes the equivalence of the two equations.

The Parabola

The parabola can be defines as the limiting curve of an ellipse as one focus (in the case we're examining, that would be ) going to infinity. The eccentricity evidently goes to one, , since the center of the ellipse has gone to infinity as well. The semi-latus rectum is still defined as the perpendicular distance from the focus to the curve, the equation is

Note that this describes a parabola opening to the left. Taking the equation of this parabola is

All parabolas look the same, apart from scaling (maybe just in one direction).

The line perpendicular to the axis and the same distance from the curve along the axis as the focus is, but outside the curve, is the parabola's directrix. That is,

Each point on the curve is the same distance from the focus as it is from the directrix. This can be deduced from the limit of the ellipse property that the sum of distances to the two foci is constant. Let's call the other focus. Then So from the diagram,

Exercises: 1. Prove by finding the slope, etc., that any ray of light emitted by a point lamp at the focus will be reflected by a parabolic mirror to go out parallel to the axis.

2. From the diagram above, show that the equality easily gives the equation for the parabola, both in and in coordinates.

The Hyperbola

Cartesian Coordinates

The hyperbola has eccentricity In Cartesian coordinates, it has equation

and has two branches, both going to infinity approaching asymptotes The curve intersects the axis at , the foci are at , for any point on the curve,

the sign being opposite for the two branches.

The semi-latus rectum, as for the earlier conics, is the perpendicular distance from a focus to the curve, and is Each focus has an associated directrix, the distance of a point on the curve from the directrix multiplied by the eccentricity gives its distance from the focus.

Polar Coordinates

The equation with respect to a focus can be found by substituting in the Cartesian equation and solving the quadratic for

Notice that has a limited range: the equation for the right-hand curve with respect to its own focus has


The equation for this curve is

in the range

This equation comes up with various signs! The left hand curve, with respect to the left hand focus, would have a positive sign With origin at (on the left) the equation of the right-hand curve is

finally with the origin at the left-hand curve is

These last two describe repulsive inverse square scattering (Rutherford).

Note: A Useful Result for Rutherford Scattering

If we define the hyperbola by

then the perpendicular distance from a focus to an asymptote is just

This equation is the same (including scale) as



Proof: The triangle is similar to triangle , so , and since the square of the hypotenuse is , the distance

I find this a surprising result because in analyzing Rutherford scattering (and other scattering) the impact parameter, the distance of the ingoing particle path from a parallel line through the scattering center, is denoted by Surely this can't be a coincidence? But I can't find anywhere that this was the original motivation for the notation.

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