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The haversine formula is an equation important in navigation, giving great-circle distances between two points on a sphere from their longitudes and latitudes. It is a special case of a more general formula in spherical trigonometry, the law of haversines, relating the sides and angles of spherical triangles. The first table of haversines in English was published by James Andrew in 1805.[1] Florian Cajori credits an earlier use by Jose de Mendoza y Ríos in 1801[2] The term haversine was coined in 1835 by Prof. James Inman.[3]
These names follow from the fact that they are customarily written in terms of the haversine function, given by haversin(θ) = sin2(θ/2). The formulas could equally be written in terms of any multiple of the haversine, such as the older versine function (twice the haversine). Prior to the advent of computers, the elimination of division and multiplication by factors of two proved convenient enough that tables of haversine values and logarithms were included in 19th and early 20th century navigation and trigonometric texts.[4][5][6] These days, the haversine form is also convenient in that it has no coefficient in front of the sin2 function.

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Abstract

During a casual conversation with one of my students, he asked me how one could go about computing the

distance between two points on the surface of the Earth, in terms of their respective latitudes and longitudes.

This is an interesting exercise in spherical coordinates, and relates to the so-called haversine.

The calculation of the distance between two points on the surface of the

Earth proceeds in two stages: (1) to

compute the straight-line Euclidean

distance these two points (obtained by

burrowing through the Earth), and (2)

to convert this distance to one measured along the surface of the Earth.

Figure 1 depicts the spherical coordinates we shall use.1 We orient this

coordinate system so that

Spherical coordinates

z

x=Rcoscos

y=Rcossin

z=Rsin

x

Figure 1: Spherical Coordinates

(ii) The x-axis passes through the Prime Meridian (0 longitude);

(iii) The xy-plane contains the Earths equator (and so the positive z-axis will

pass through the North Pole)

Note that the angle is the measurement of lattitude, and the angle is the

measurement of longitude, where 0 < 360 , and 90 90 . Negative

values of correspond to points in the Southern Hemisphere, and positive values

of correspond to points in the Northern Hemisphere.

When one uses spherical coordinates it is typical for the radial distance R to

vary; however, in our discussion we may fix it to be the average radius of the

Earth:

R 6, 378 km.

1 What

is depicted are not the usual spherical coordinates, as the angle is usually measure from the zenith, or z-axis.

Thus, we assume that we are given two points P1 and P2 determined by their

respective lattitude-longitude pairs: P1 (1 , 1 ), P2 (2 , 2 ). In cartesian coordinates we have P1 = P1 (x1 , y1 , z1 ) and P2 = P2 (x2 , y2 , z2 ), where x, y, and z are

determined by the spherical coordinates through the familiar equations:

x = R cos cos

y = R cos sin

z = R sin

The Euclidean distance d between P1 and P2 is given by the three-dimensional

Pythagorean theorem:

d2 = (x1 x2 )2 + (y1 y2 )2 + (z1 z2 )2 .

The bulk of our work will be in computing this distance in terms of the spherical

coordinates. Converting the cartesian coordinates to spherical coordinates, we

get

d2 /R2 = (cos 1 cos 1 cos 2 cos 2 )2

+(cos 1 sin 1 cos 2 sin 2 )2

+(sin 1 sin 2 )2

= cos2 1 cos2 1 2 cos 1 cos 1 cos 2 cos 2 + cos2 2 cos2 2

+ cos2 1 sin2 1 2 cos 1 sin 1 cos 2 sin 2 + cos2 2 sin2 2

+ sin2 1 2 sin 1 sin 2 + sin2 2

= 2 2 cos 1 cos 2 cos(1 2 ) 2 sin 1 sin 2

along the surface of the Earth, we need only

analyze Figure 2 in detail. Notice that D is the

arc length along the indicated sector. From

sin(/2) =

we get

P1

R

d

,

2R

d/2

d/2

sin = 2 sin(/2) cos(/2)

s

2

R

d

d

=

1

R

2R

P2

p

d

=

4R2 d2 .

Figure 2: Arc Length

2R2

Therefore, in terms of d and R, the distance D

is given by

p

d

4R2 d2 ,

D = R = R sin1

2

2R

which, in principle, concludes this narrative.

The distance is often represented in terms of the so-called haversine function,

defined by

1 cos A

2 A

haversin A = sin

=

.

2

2

This says that cos A = 1 2 haversin A.

Returning to the formula for d above, we continue, feeding in the new notation:

d2 /R2 =

=

=

=

2 2 cos 1 cos 2 [1 2 haversin (1 2 )] 2 sin 1 sin 2

2 2 cos(1 2 ) + 4 cos 1 cos 2 haversin (1 2 )

4 haversin (1 2 ) + 4 cos 1 cos 2 haversin (1 2 )

2

d

= haversin (1 2 ) + cos 1 cos 2 haversin (1 2 ),

2R

and so

haversin = haversin (1 2 ) + cos 1 cos 2 haversin (1 2 ),

Finally, we have (refer to Figure 2)

2

d

= haversin (1 2 )+cos 1 cos 2 haversin (1 2 ), sin2 (/2) = haversin ,

2R

meaning that

1

D = R = 2R sin

haversin .

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