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Geodesics on an ellipsoid

A geodesic on an oblate ellipsoid

The study of geodesics on an ellipsoid arose in connection with geodesy specically with the solution of
triangulation networks. The gure of the Earth is well
approximated by an oblate ellipsoid, a slightly attened
sphere. A geodesic is the shortest path between two points Isaac Newton
on a curved surface, i.e., the analogue of a straight line on
a plane surface. The solution of a triangulation network
on an ellipsoid is therefore a set of exercises in spheroidal the great-circle distance using the mean Earth radius
trigonometry (Euler 1755).
the relative error is less than 1%. However, the course
If the Earth is treated as a sphere, the geodesics are great of the geodesic can dier dramatically from that of the
circles (all of which are closed) and the problems re- great circle. As an extreme example, consider two points
duce to ones in spherical trigonometry. However, Newton on the equator with a longitude dierence of 17959;
(1687) showed that the eect of the rotation of the Earth while the connecting great circle follows the equator, the
results in its resembling a slightly oblate ellipsoid and, shortest geodesics pass within 180 km of either pole (the
in this case, the equator and the meridians are the only attening makes two symmetric paths passing close to the
closed geodesics. Furthermore, the shortest path between poles shorter than the route along the equator).
two points on the equator does not necessarily run along Aside from their use in geodesy and related elds such
the equator. Finally, if the ellipsoid is further perturbed as navigation, terrestrial geodesics arise in the study of
to become a triaxial ellipsoid (with three distinct semi- the propagation of signals which are conned (approxiaxes), then only three geodesics are closed and one of mately) to the surface of the Earth, for example, sound
these is unstable.
waves in the ocean (Munk & Forbes 1989) and the radio
The problems in geodesy are usually reduced to two main
cases: the direct problem, given a starting point and an initial heading, nd the position after traveling a certain distance along the geodesic; and the inverse problem, given
two points on the ellipsoid nd the connecting geodesic
and hence the shortest distance between them. Because
the attening of the Earth is small, the geodesic distance
between two points on the Earth is well approximated by

signals from lightning (Casper & Bent 1991). Geodesics

are used to dene some maritime boundaries, which in
turn determine the allocation of valuable resources as
such oil and mineral rights. Ellipsoidal geodesics also
arise in other applications; for example, the propagation
of radio waves along the fuselage of an aircraft, which
can be roughly modeled as a prolate (elongated) ellipsoid
(Kim & Burnside 1986).


(the term spheroid is also used) was a well-accepted approximation to the gure of the Earth. The adjustment
of triangulation networks entailed reducing all the measurements to a reference ellipsoid and solving the resulting two-dimensional problem as an exercise in spheroidal
trigonometry (Bomford 1952, Chap. 3).





Fig. 1. A geodesic AB on an ellipsoid of revolution. N is the

north pole and EFH lie on the equator.
Leonhard Euler

It is possible to reduce the various geodesic problems into

one of two types. Consider two points: A at latitude 1
and longitude 1 and B at latitude 2 and longitude 2
(see Fig. 1). The connecting geodesic (from A to B) is
AB, of length s12 , which has azimuths 1 and 2 at the
two endpoints.[1] The two geodesic problems usually considered are:

Geodesics are an important intrinsic characteristic of

curved surfaces. The sequence of progressively more
complex surfaces, the sphere, an ellipsoid of revolution,
and a triaxial ellipsoid, provide a useful family of surfaces for investigating the general theory of surfaces. Indeed, Gausss work on the survey of Hanover, which in1. the direct geodesic problem or rst geodesic problem,
volved geodesics on an oblate ellipsoid, was a key motigiven A, 1 , and s12 , determine B and 2 ;
vation for his study of surfaces (Gauss 1828). Similarly,
2. the inverse geodesic problem or second geodesic
the existence of three closed geodesics on a triaxial ellipproblem, given A and B, determine s12 , 1 , and 2 .
soid turns out to be a general property of closed, simply
connected surfaces; this was conjectured by Poincar
(1905) and proved by Lyusternik & Schnirelmann (1929) As can be seen from Fig. 1, these problems involve solving the triangle NAB given one angle, 1 for the direct
(Klingenberg 1982, 3.7).
problem and 12 = 2 1 for the inverse problem, and
its two adjacent sides. In the course of the 18th century
these problems were elevated (especially in literature in
1 Geodesics on an ellipsoid of rev- the German language) to the principal geodesic problems
(Hansen 1865, p. 69).


For a sphere the solutions to these problems are simple exThere are several ways of dening geodesics (Hilbert & ercises in spherical trigonometry, whose solution is given
Cohn-Vossen 1952, pp. 220221). A simple denition by formulas for solving a spherical triangle. (See the aris as the shortest path between two points on a surface. ticle on great-circle navigation.)
However, it is frequently more useful to dene them as For an ellipsoid of revolution, the characteristic constant
paths with zero geodesic curvaturei.e., the analogue of dening the geodesic was found by Clairaut (1735). A
straight lines on a curved surface. This denition en- systematic solution for the paths of geodesics was given
compasses geodesics traveling so far across the ellipsoids by Legendre (1806) and Oriani (1806) (and subsequent
surface (somewhat less than half the circumference) that papers in 1808 and 1810). The full solution for the diother distinct routes require less distance. Locally, these rect problem (complete with computational tables and a
geodesics are still identical to the shortest distance be- worked out example) is given by Bessel (1825).[2]
tween two points.
Much of the early work on these problems was carried out
By the end of the 18th century, an ellipsoid of revolution by mathematiciansfor example, Legendre, Bessel, and


Equations for a geodesic

coined by Laplace (1799b):
Nous dsignerons cette ligne sous le nom
de ligne godsique [We will call this line the
geodesic line].
This terminology was introduced into English either as
geodesic line or as geodetic line, for example (Hutton
A line traced in the manner we have now
been describing, or deduced from trigonometrical measures, by the means we have indicated, is called a geodetic or geodesic line: it
has the property of being the shortest which
can be drawn between its two extremities on
the surface of the Earth; and it is therefore the
proper itinerary measure of the distance between those two points.

Alexis Clairaut

In its adoption by other elds geodesic line, frequently

shortened, to geodesic, was preferred.[4]
This section treats the problem on an ellipsoid of revolution (both oblate and prolate). The problem on a triaxial
ellipsoid is covered in the next section.
When determining distances on the earth, various approximate methods are frequently used; some of these
are described in the article on geographical distance.

1.1 Equations for a geodesic

Barnaba Oriani

Gausswho were also heavily involved in the practical

aspects of surveying. Beginning in about 1830, the disciplines diverged: those with an interest in geodesy concentrated on the practical aspects such as approximations
suitable for eld work, while mathematicians pursued the
solution of geodesics on a triaxial ellipsoid, the analysis
of the stability of closed geodesics, etc.
During the 18th century geodesics were typically referred
to as shortest lines.[3] The term geodesic line was Friedrich Bessel



ds2 = 2 d2 + R2 d2


ds = 2 2 + R2 d
L(, ) d,

where = d/d and L depends on through () and

R(). The length of an arbitrary path between (1 , 1 )
and (2 , 2 ) is given by

Fig. 2. Dierential element of a meridian ellipse.

R d

s12 =

L(, ) d,

where is a function of satisfying (1 ) = 1 and (2 )

= 2 . The shortest path or geodesic entails nding that
function () which minimizes s12 . This is an exercise in
the calculus of variations and the minimizing condition is
given by the Beltrami identity,


+ d

= const.

Substituting for L and using Eqs. (1) gives

Fig. 3. Dierential element of a geodesic on an ellipsoid.

Here the equations for a geodesic are developed; these
allow the geodesics of any length to be computed accurately. The following derivation closely follows that
of Bessel (1825). Bagratuni (1962, 15), Krakiwsky &
Thomson (1974, 4), Rapp (1993, 1.2), and Borre &
Strang (2012) also provide derivations of these equations.

a sin


Consider an ellipsoid of revolution with equatorial radius

a and polar semi-axis b. Dene the attening f = (a

b)/a, the eccentricity e2 = f(2 f), and the second ec0

R = a cos
centricity e = e/(1 f). (In most applications in geodesy,
the ellipsoid is taken to be oblate, a > b; however, the theory applies without change to prolate ellipsoids, a < b, in Fig. 4. The geometric construction for parametric latitude, . A
point P at latitude on the meridian (red) is mapped to a point
which case f, e2 , and e2 are negative.)
P on a sphere of radius a (shown as a blue circle) by keeping the

Let an elementary segment of a path on the ellipsoid have radius R constant.

length ds. From Figs. 2 and 3, we see that if its azimuth
is , then ds is related to d and d by

cos ds = d = dR/ sin ,

R sin = const.
sin ds = R d,

where is the meridional radius of curvature, R = cos

is the radius of the circle of latitude , and is the normal
radius of curvature. The elementary segment is therefore
given by

Clairaut (1735) rst found this relation, using a geometrical construction; a similar derivation is presented
by Lyusternik (1964, 10).[5] Dierentiating this relation and manipulating the result gives (Jekeli 2012, Eq.


Equations for a geodesic

Fig. 6. In this gure, the variables referred to the auxiliary sphere are shown with the corresponding quantities
d = sin d.
for the ellipsoid shown in parentheses. Quantities without subscripts refer to the arbitrary point P; E, the point at
This, together with Eqs. (1), leads to a system of ordinary which the geodesic crosses the equator in the northward
dierential equations for a geodesic (Borre & Strang direction, is used as the origin for , s and .
2012, Eqs. (11.71) and (11.76))



cos d

tan sin

We can express R in terms of the parametric latitude, ,



+ d

R = a cos

(see Fig. 4 for the geometrical construction), and

Clairauts relation then becomes

sin 1 cos 1 = sin 2 cos 2 .

Fig. 7. Dierential element of a geodesic on a sphere.

If the side EP is extended by moving P innitesimally (see

Fig. 7), we obtain


Fig. 5.



Geodesic problem mapped to the auxiliary


( - 0)


sin d = cos d.

Combining Eqs. (1) and (3) gives dierential equations

for s and

cos d = d,

1 ds
a d
Up to this point, we have not made use of the specic
equations for an ellipsoid, and indeed the derivation applies to an arbitrary surface of revolution.[7] Bessel now
specializes to an ellipsoid in which R and Z are related by


+ 2 = 1,

where Z is the height above the equator (see Fig. 4). Differentiating this and setting dR/dZ = sin/cos gives

Fig. 6. The elementary geodesic problem on the auxiliary sphere.

R sin Z cos

= 0;
This is the sine rule of spherical trigonometry relating two
sides of the triangle NAB (see Fig. 5), NA = 1 , and
NB = 2 and their opposite angles B = 2 and eliminating Z from these equations, we obtain
A = 1 .
In order to nd the relation for the third side AB = 12 , R
the spherical arc length, and included angle N = 12 , the a = cos = 1 e2 sin2 .
spherical longitude, it is useful to consider the triangle
NEP representing a geodesic starting at the equator; see This relation between and can be written as


and the limits on the integrals are chosen so that = 0 at
the equator crossing, = 0.

tan = 1 e2 tan = (1 f ) tan ,

In using these integral relations, we allow to increase

which is the normal denition of the parametric latitude continuously (not restricting it to a range [, ], for example) as the great circle, resp. geodesic, encircles the
on an ellipsoid. Furthermore, we have
auxiliary sphere, resp. ellipsoid. The quantities , , and
s are likewise allowed to increase without limit. Once the

problem is solved, can be reduced to the conventional

= 1 e2 cos2 ,
so that the dierential equations for the geodesic become This completes the solution of the path of a geodesic using the auxiliary sphere. By this device a great circle can
be mapped exactly to a geodesic on an ellipsoid of revolu
tion. However, because the equations for s and in terms
1 ds
= 1 e2 cos2 .
of the spherical quantities depend on 0 , the mapping is
a d
not a consistent mapping of the surface of the sphere to
The last step is to use as the independent parameter[8] in the ellipsoid or vice versa; instead, it should be viewed
both of these dierential equations and thereby to express merely as a convenient tool for solving for a particular
s and as integrals. Applying the sine rule to the vertices geodesic.
E and G in the spherical triangle EGP in Fig. 6 gives
There are also several ways of approximating geodesics
on an ellipsoid which usually apply for suciently short
lines (Rapp 1991, 6); however, these are typically comsin = sin (; 0 ) = cos 0 sin ,
parable in complexity to the method for the exact solution
given above (Jekeli 2012, 2.1.4).
where 0 is the azimuth at E. Substituting this into the
equation for ds/d and integrating the result gives

1.2 Behavior of geodesics

1 e2 cos2 ( ; 0 )
1 + k 2 sin2 d ,


k = e cos 0 ,
and the limits on the integral are chosen so that s( = 0) =
0. Legendre (1811, p. 180) pointed out that the equation
for s is the same as the equation for the arc on an ellipse
with semi-axes b(1 + e2 cos2 0 )1/2 and b. In order to
express the equation for in terms of , we write

d =

sin 0
Fig. 8. Meridians and the equator are the only closed geodesics.

which follows from Eq. (3) and Clairauts relation. This (For the very attened ellipsoids, there are other closed geodesics;
see Figs. 13 and 14).

Geodesic on an oblate ellipsoid (f = 1/50) with 0 = 45.


1 + sin

0 = (1 f ) sin 0
0 1 cos 0 sin
- 0

-45 d

= sin 0

1 e cos ( ; Fig.
0 1+
0 ) 9. Latitude as a function of longitude for a single cy
cle ofd
the , geodesic from one northward equatorial cross
= f sin 0
2 the next.
0 1 + (1 f ) 1 + k 2 siningto



Behavior of geodesics

intersection.) This follows from the equations for the
geodesics given in the previous section.

For meridians, we have 0 = 0 and Eq. (5) becomes =

+ 0 , i.e., the longitude will vary the same way as for a
sphere, jumping by each time the geodesic crosses the
pole. The distance, Eq. (4), reduces to the length of an
arc of an ellipse with semi-axes a and b (as expected),
expressed in terms of parametric latitude, .

The equator ( = 0 on the auxiliary sphere, = 0 on the

ellipsoid) corresponds to 0 = . The distance reduces
to the arc of a circle of radius b (and not a), s = b, while
the longitude simplies to = (1 f) + 0 . A geodesic
that is nearly equatorial will intersect the equator at interFig. 10. Following the geodesic on the ellipsoid for about vals of b. As a consequence, the maximum length of a
5 circuits.
equatorial geodesic which is also a shortest path is b on
an oblate ellipsoid (on a prolate ellipsoid, the maximum
length is a).
All other geodesics are typied by Figs. 9 to 11. Figure
9 shows latitude as a function of longitude for a geodesic
starting on the equator with 0 = 45. A full cycle of
the geodesic, from one northward crossing of the equator to the next, is shown. The equatorial crossings are
called nodes and the points of maximum or minimum
latitude are called vertices; the vertex latitudes are given
by |&beta;| = ( |0 |). The latitude is an odd, resp.
even, function of the longitude about the nodes, resp. vertices. The geodesic completes one full oscillation in latitude before the longitude has increased by 360. Thus,
on each successive northward crossing of the equator (see
Fig. 11. The same geodesic after about 70 circuits.
Before solving for the geodesics, it is worth reviewing Fig. 10), falls short of a full circuit of the equator by approximately 2 f sin0 (for a prolate ellipsoid, this quantity is negative and completes more that a full circuit;
see Fig. 12). For nearly all values of 0 , the geodesic
will ll that portion of the ellipsoid between the two vertex latitudes (see Fig. 11).
Two additional closed geodesics for the oblate ellipsoid,
b/a = 2/7.

Fig. 12. Geodesic on a prolate ellipsoid (f = 1/50) with 0 =

45. Compare with Fig. 10.

their behavior. Fig. 8 shows the simple closed geodesics

which consist of the meridians (green) and the equator (red). (Here the qualication simple means that
the geodesic closes on itself without an intervening self-

Fig. 13. Side view.


Fig. 14. Top view.

If the ellipsoid is suciently oblate, i.e., b/a < , another
class of simple closed geodesics is possible (Klingenberg
1982, 3.5.19). Two such geodesics are illustrated in
Figs. 13 and 14. Here b/a = 2/7 and the equatorial azimuth, 0 , for the green (resp. blue) geodesic is chosen
to be 53.175 (resp. 75.192), so that the geodesic completes 2 (resp. 3) complete oscillations about the equator
on one circuit of the ellipsoid.


Evaluation of the integrals

Solving the geodesic problems entails evaluating the integrals for the distance, s, and the longitude, , Eqs. (4)
and (5). In geodetic applications, where f is small, the
integrals are typically evaluated as a series; for this purpose, the second form of the longitude integral is preferred (since it avoids the near singular behavior of the
rst form when geodesics pass close to a pole). In both
integrals, the integrand is an even periodic function of
period . Furthermore, the term dependent on is multiplied by a small quantity k2 = O(f). As a consequence,
the integrals can both be written in the form

I = B0 +

In order to solve the direct geodesic problem, it is necessary to nd given s. Since the integrand in the distance integral is positive, this problem has a unique root,
which may be found using Newtons method, noting that
the required derivative is just the integrand of the distance integral. Oriani (1833) instead uses series reversion
so that can be found without iteration; Helmert (1880)
gives a similar series.[10] The reverted series converges
somewhat slower that the direct series and, if |f| > 1/100,
Karney (2013, addenda) supplements the reverted series
with one step of Newtons method to maintain accuracy.
Vincenty (1975a) instead relies on a simpler (but slower)
function iteration to solve for .
It is also possible to evaluate the integrals (4) and (5) by
numerical quadrature (Saito 1970) (Saito 1979) (Sjberg
& Shirazian 2012) or to apply numerical techniques
for the solution of the ordinary dierential equations,
Eqs. (2) (Kivioja 1971) (Thomas & Featherstone 2005)
(Panou et al. 2013). Such techniques can be used for
arbitrary attening f. However, if f is small, e.g., |f|
1/50, they do not oer the speed and accuracy of the series expansions described above. Furthermore, for arbitrary f, the evaluation of the integrals in terms of elliptic integrals (see below) also provides a fast and accurate
solution. On the other hand, Mathar (2007) has tackled
the more complex problem of geodesics on the surface at
a constant altitude, h, above the ellipsoid by solving the
corresponding ordinary dierential equations, Eqs. (2)
with [, ] replaced by [ + h, + h].

Bj sin 2j


where B0 = 1 + O(f) and Bj = O(f j ). Series expansions

for Bj can readily be found and the result truncated so
that only terms which are O(f J ) and larger are retained.[9]
(Because the longitude integral is multiplied by f, it is typically only necessary to retain terms up to O(f J1 ) in that
integral.) This prescription is followed by many authors
(Legendre 1806) (Oriani 1806) (Bessel 1825) (Helmert
1880) (Rainsford 1955) (Rapp 1993). Vincenty (1975a)
uses J = 3 which provides an accuracy of about 0.1 mm
for the WGS84 ellipsoid. Karney (2013) gives expansions
carried out for J = 6 which suces to provide full double
precision accuracy for |f| 1/50. Trigonometric series
of this type can be conveniently summed using Clenshaw

A. M. Legendre

Geodesics on an ellipsoid was an early application of

elliptic integrals. In particular, Legendre (1811) writes
the integrals, Eqs. (4) and (5), as


Solution of the direct problem

19.2(ii)).[11][12] The rst formula for the longitude in
Eq. (7) follows directly from the rst form of Eq. (5).
The second formula in Eq. (7), due to Cayley (1870),
is more convenient for calculation since the elliptic integral appears in a small term. The equivalence of the two
forms follows from DLMF (2010, Eq. (19.7.8)). Fast
algorithms for computing elliptic integrals are given by
Carlson (1995) in terms of symmetric elliptic integrals.
Equation (6) is conveniently inverted using Newtons
method. The use of elliptic integrals provides a good
method of solving the geodesic problem for |f| > 1/50.[13]

1.4 Solution of the direct problem

The basic strategy for solving the geodesic problems on
the ellipsoid is to map the problem onto the auxiliary
sphere by converting , , and s, to , and , to solve
the corresponding great-circle problem on the sphere, and
to transfer the results back to the ellipsoid.
In implementing this program, we will frequently need to
solve the elementary spherical triangle for NEP in Fig.
6 with P replaced by either A (subscript 1) or B (subscript
2). For this purpose, we can apply Napiers rules for quadrantal triangles to the triangle NEP on the auxiliary sphere
which give
Arthur Cayley

sin 0 = sin cos = tan cot ,

cos = cos cos = tan 0 cot ,

cos = cos cos 0 = cot tan ,
sin = cos 0 sin = cot tan ,

= E(, ik),
= (1 f ) sin 0 G(, cos2 0 , ik)

sin 0 H(, e2 , ik),
1 + e2


tan =

1 + e2
tan ,
1 + k 2 sin2


1 k 2 sin2
G(, , k) =
1 2 sin2
= 2 F (, k) + 1 2 (, 2 , k),


H(, 2 , k) =
0 (1 sin ) 1 k 2 sin
= 2 F (, k) + 1 2 (, 2 , k),

sin = sin sin = tan tan 0 .

We can also stipulate that cos 0 and cos0 0.[14]

Implementing this plan for the direct problem is straightforward. We are given 1 , 1 , and s12 . From 1 we
obtain 1 (using the formula for the parametric latitude).
We now solve the triangle problem with P = A and 1 and
1 given to nd 0 , 1 , and 1 .[15] Use the distance and
longitude equations, Eqs. (4) and (5), together with the
known value of 1 , to nd s1 and 0 . Determine s2 = s1 +
s12 and invert the distance equation to nd 2 . Solve the
triangle problem with P = B and 0 and 2 given to nd
2 , 2 , and 2 . Convert 2 to 2 and substitute 2 and
2 into the longitude equation to give 2 .[16]
The overall method follows the procedure for solving the
direct problem on a sphere. It is essentially the program
laid out by Bessel (1825),[17] Helmert (1880, 5.9), and
most subsequent authors.

Intermediate points, way-points, on a geodesic can be

found by holding 1 and 1 xed and solving the direct
problem for several values of s12 . Once the rst waypoint
is found, only the last portion of the solution (starting with
and F(, k), E(, k), and (, 2 , k), are incomplete the determination of s2 ) needs to be repeated for each
elliptic integrals in the notation of DLMF (2010, new value of s12 .




Solution of the inverse problem

The ease with which the direct problem can be solved results from the fact that given 1 and 1 , we can immediately nd 0 , the parameter in the distance and longitude
integrals, Eqs. (4) and (5). In the case of the inverse
problem, we are given 12 , but we cannot easily relate
this to the equivalent spherical angle 12 because 0 is
unknown. Thus, the solution of the problem requires that
0 be found iteratively. Before tackling this, it is worth
understanding better the behavior of geodesics, this time,
keeping the starting point xed and varying the azimuth.
Geodesics from a single point (f = 1/10, 1 = 30)

Fig. 15. Geodesics, geodesic circles, and the cut locus.





1 = 90









- 1


they cease to be shortest paths. (The attening has been

increased to 1/10 in order to accentuate the ellipsoidal effects.) Also shown (in green) are curves of constant s12 ,
which are the geodesic circles centered A. Gauss (1828)
showed that, on any surface, geodesics and geodesic circle intersect at right angles. The red line is the cut locus,
the locus of points which have multiple (two in this case)
shortest geodesics from A. On a sphere, the cut locus is a
point. On an oblate ellipsoid (shown here), it is a segment
of the circle of latitude centered on the point antipodal to
A, = 1 . The longitudinal extent of cut locus is approximately 12 [ f cos1 , + f cos1 ]. If
A lies on the equator, 1 = 0, this relation is exact and
as a consequence the equator is only a shortest geodesic
if |&lambda;<sub>12</sub>| (1 f). For a prolate
ellipsoid, the cut locus is a segment of the anti-meridian
centered on the point antipodal to A, 12 = , and this
means that meridional geodesics stop being shortest paths
before the antipodal point is reached.
The solution of the inverse problem involves determining, for a given point B with latitude 2 and longitude 2
which blue and green curves it lies on; this determines 1
and s12 respectively. In Fig. 16, the ellipsoid has been
rolled out onto a plate carre projection. Suppose 2 =
20, the green line in the gure. Then as 1 is varied between 0 and 180, the longitude at which the geodesic intersects = 2 varies between 0 and 180 (see Fig. 17).
This behavior holds provided that |&phi;<sub>2</sub>|
|1 | (otherwise the geodesic does not reach 2 for some
values of 1 ). Thus, the inverse problem may be solved
by determining the value 1 which results in the given
value of 12 when the geodesic intersects the circle =
2 .
This suggests the following strategy for solving the inverse
problem (Karney 2013). Assume that the points A and B

Fig. 16. The geodesics shown on a plate carre projection.


1 0,

|2 | |1 | ,

0 12 .



(There is no loss of generality in this assumption, since

the symmetries of the problem can be used to generate
any conguration of points from such congurations.)


1. First treat the easy cases, geodesics which lie on a

meridian or the equator. Otherwise...
2. Guess a value of 1 .



Fig. 17. 12 as a function of 1 for 1 = 30 and 2 =


3. Solve the so-called hybrid geodesic problem, given

1 , 2 , and 1 nd 12 , s12 , and 2 , corresponding
to the rst intersection of the geodesic with the circle
= 2 .
4. Compare the resulting 12 with the desired value and
adjust 1 until the two values agree. This completes
the solution.

Suppose point A in the inverse problem has 1 = 30

and 1 = 0. Fig. 15 shows geodesics (in blue) emanating A with 1 a multiple of 15 up to the point at which Each of these steps requires some discussion.


Solution of the inverse problem


1. For an oblate ellipsoid, the shortest geodesic lies on a

meridian if either point lies on a pole or if 12 = 0 or .
The shortest geodesic follows the equator if 1 = 2 = 0
and |&lambda;<sub>12</sub>| (1 f). For a prolate
ellipsoid, the meridian is no longer the shortest geodesic
if 12 = and the points are close to antipodal (this will
be discussed in the next section). There is no longitudinal
restriction on equatorial geodesics.
2. In most cases a suitable starting value of 1 is found
by solving the spherical inverse problem[14]

tan 1 =

cos 2 sin 12
cos 1 sin 2 sin 1 cos 2 cos 12

with 12 = 12 . This may be a bad approximation if A

and B are nearly antipodal (both the numerator and denominator in the formula above become small); however,
this may not matter (depending on how step 4 is handled).
3. The solution of the hybrid geodesic problem is as follows. It starts the same way as the solution of the direct
problem, solving the triangle NEP with P = A to nd 0 ,
1 , 1 , and 0 .[18] Now nd 2 from sin2 = sin0 /cos2 ,
taking cos2 0 (corresponding to the rst, northward,
crossing of the circle = 2 ). Next, 2 is given by tan2
= tan2 /cos2 and 2 by tan2 = tan2 /sin0 .[14] Finally, use the distance and longitude equations, Eqs. (4)
and (5), to nd s12 and 12 .[19]
4. In order to discuss how 1 is updated, let us dene the
root-nding problem in more detail. The curve in Fig.
17 shows 12 (1 ; 1 , 2 ) where we regard 1 and 2 as
parameters and 1 as the independent variable. We seek
the value of 1 which is the root of

g(1 ) 12 (1 ; 1 , 2 ) 12 = 0,
where g(0) 0 and g() 0. In fact, there is a unique
root in the interval 1 [0, ]. Any of a number of rootnding algorithms can be used to solve such an equation.
Karney (2013) uses Newtons method, which requires a
good starting guess; however it may be supplemented by
a fail-safe method, such as the bisection method, to guarantee convergence.
An alternative method for solving the inverse problem is
given by Helmert (1880, 5.13). Let us rewrite the Eq.
(5) as

F. R. Helmert

12 = 12 + f sin 0 I(1 , 2 ; 0 ).
This xed point iteration is repeated until convergence.
Rainsford (1955) advocates this method and Vincenty
(1975a) adopted it in his solution of the inverse problem. The drawbacks of this method are that convergence is slower than obtained using Newtons method (as
described above) and, more seriously, that the process
fails to converge at all for nearly antipodal points. In
a subsequent report, Vincenty (1975b) attempts to cure
this defect; but he is only partially successfulthe NGS
(2012) implementation still includes Vincentys x still
fails to converge in some cases. Lee (2011) has compared 17 methods for solving the inverse problem against
the method given by Karney (2013).
The shortest distance returned by the solution of the inverse problem is (obviously) uniquely dened. However,
if B lies on the cut locus of A there are multiple azimuths
which yield the same shortest distance. Here is a catalog
of those cases:
1 = 2 (with neither point at a pole). If 1 =
2 , the geodesic is unique. Otherwise there are two
geodesics and the second one is obtained by interchanging 1 and 2 . (This occurs when 12
for oblate ellipsoids.)


1 1 + (1 f ) 1 + k 2 sin
= 12 f sin 0 I(1 , 2 ; 0 ).

12 = 12 f sin 0

Helmerts method entails assuming that 12 = 12 , solving the resulting problem on auxiliary sphere, and obtaining an updated estimate of 12 using

12 = (with neither point at a pole). If 1 = 0 or

, the geodesic is unique. Otherwise there are two
geodesics and the second one is obtained by negating 1 and 2 . (This occurs when 1 + 2 0 for
prolate ellipsoids.)

A and B are at opposite poles. There are innitely

many geodesics which can be generated by varying



the azimuths so as to keep 1 + 2 constant. (For Various problems involving geodesics require knowing
spheres, this prescription applies when A and B are their behavior when they are perturbed. This is useful
in trigonometric adjustments (Ehlert 1993), determining
the physical properties of signals which follow geodesics,
etc. Consider a reference geodesic, parameterized by s
the length from the northward equator crossing, and a
1.6 Dierential behavior of geodesics
second geodesic a small distance t(s) away from it. Gauss
(1828) showed that t(s) obeys the Gauss-Jacobi equation

d2 t(s)
= K(s)t(s),

where K(s) is the Gaussian curvature at s. The solution





Fig. 18. Denition of reduced length and geodesic scale.

may be expressed as the sum of two independent solutions

t(s2 ) = Cm(s1 , s2 ) + DM (s1 , s2 )

C. F. Gauss


m(s1 , s1 ) = 0,
M (s1 , s1 ) = 1,

dm(s1 , s2 )
= 1,

s2 =s1

dM (s1 , s2 )
= 0.

s2 =s1

We shall abbreviate m(s1 , s2 ) = m12 , the so-called reduced

length, and M(s1 , s2 ) = M 12 , the geodesic scale.[20] Their
basic denitions are illustrated in Fig. 18. Christoel
(1869) made an extensive study of their properties. The
reduced length obeys a reciprocity relation,

m12 + m21 = 0.
Their derivatives are

= M21 ,
1 M12 M21
E. B. Christoel

Assuming that points 1, 2, and 3, lie on the same geodesic,

then the following addition rules apply (Karney 2013),


Geodesic map projections


length s12 , to be a shortest path it must satisfy the Jacobi

condition (Jacobi 1837) (Jacobi 1866, 6) (Forsyth 1927,
m13 = m12 M23 + m23 M21 ,
2627) (Bliss 1916), that there is no point conjugate to
A between A and B. If this condition is not satised, then
M13 = M12 M23 (1 M12 M21 )
there is a nearby path (not necessarily a geodesic) which
is shorter. Thus, the Jacobi condition is a local property
M31 = M32 M21 (1 M23 M32 )
of the geodesic and is only a necessary condition for the
The reduced length and the geodesic scale are compo- geodesic being a global shortest path. Necessary and sufcient conditions for a geodesic being the shortest path
nents of the Jacobi eld.
The Gaussian curvature for an ellipsoid of revolution is
for an oblate ellipsoid, |12 | ;

(1 e2 sin2 )2
= 4

a (1 e2 cos2 )2

Helmert (1880, Eq. (6.5.1.)) solved the Gauss-Jacobi

equation for this case obtaining

for a prolate ellipsoid, |12 | , if 0 0; if 0 =

0, the supplemental condition m12 0 is required if
|12 | = .

The latter condition above can be used to determine

whether the shortest path is a meridian in the case of

a prolate ellipsoid with |&lambda;<sub>12</sub>| = .

m12 /b = 1 + k 2 sin2 2 cos 1 sin 2 1 + k 2 sin2 The
1 cos 2required to solve the inverse method usderivative
1 sin
ing Newtons method, 12 (1 ; 1 , 2 ) / 1 , is given in
cos 1 cos 2 J(2 ) J(1 ) ,
terms of the reduced length (Karney 2013, Eq. (46)).

1 + k 2 sin2 2
M12 = cos 1 cos 2 +
sin 1 sin 2
1 + k 2 sin2 1
1.7 Geodesic map projections
sin 1 cos 2 J(2 ) J(1 )

Two map projections are dened in terms of geodesics.
1 + k 2 sin2 1
They are based on polar and rectangular geodesic coordiwhere
nates on the surface (Gauss 1828). The polar coordinate
system (r, ) is centered on some point A. The coordinates of another point B are given by r = s12 and =

k 2 sin
1 and these coordinates are used to nd the projected

J() =
1 + k 2 sin2
coordinates on a plane map, x = r cos and y = r sin.
The result is the familiar azimuthal equidistant projec= E(, ik) F (, ik).
tion; in the eld of the dierential geometry of surfaces,
As we see from Fig. 18 (top sub-gure), the separation it is called the exponential map. Due to the basic propof two geodesics starting at the same point with azimuths erties of geodesics (Gauss 1828), lines of constant r and
diering by d1 is m12 d1 . On a closed surface such as lines of constant intersect at right angles on the surface.
an ellipsoid, we expect m12 to oscillate about zero. In- The scale of the projection in the radial direction is unity,
deed, if the starting point of a geodesic is a pole, 1 = while the scale in the azimuthal direction is s12 /m12 .
, then the reduced length is the radius of the circle of
The rectangular coordinate system (x, y) uses a reference
latitude, m12 = a cos2 = a sin12 . Similarly, for a meridgeodesic dened by A and 1 as the x axis. The point (x,
ional geodesic starting on the equator, 1 = 1 = 0, we
y) is found by traveling a distance s13 = x from A along
have M 12 = cos12 . In the typical case, these quantities
the reference geodesic to an intermediate point C and
oscillate with a period of about 2 in 12 and grow linthen turning counter-clockwise and traveling along a
early with distance at a rate proportional to f. In trigonogeodesic a distance s32 = y. If A is on the equator and 1 =
metric adjustments over small areas, it may be possible
, this gives the equidistant cylindrical projection. If 1
to approximate K(s) in Eq. (9) by a constant K. In this
= 0, this gives the Cassini-Soldner projection. Cassinis
limit, the solutions for m12 and M 12 are the same as for
map of France placed A at the Paris Observatory. Due to
a sphere of radius 1/K, namely,
the basic properties of geodesics (Gauss 1828), lines of
constant x and lines of constant y intersect at right angles

on the surface. The scale of the projection in the y direcm12 = sin( Ks12 )/ K, M12 = cos( Ks12 ).
tion is unity, while the scale in the x direction is 1/M 32 .
To simplify the discussion of shortest paths in this paragraph we consider only geodesics with s12 > 0. The point
at which m12 becomes zero is the point conjugate to the
starting point. In order for a geodesic between A and B, of

The gnomonic projection is a projection of the sphere

where all geodesics (i.e., great circles) map to straight
lines (making it a convenient aid to navigation). Such
a projection is only possible for surfaces of constant

Gaussian curvature (Beltrami 1865). Thus a projection
in which geodesics map to straight lines is not possible
for an ellipsoid. However, it is possible to construct an ellipsoidal gnomonic projection in which this property approximately holds (Karney 2013, 8). On the sphere, the
gnomonic projection is the limit of a doubly azimuthal
projection, a projection preserving the azimuths from
two points A and B, as B approaches A. Carrying out
this limit in the case of a general surface yields an azimuthal projection in which the distance from the center of projection is given by = m12 /M 12 . Even though
geodesics are only approximately straight in this projection, all geodesics through the center of projection are
straight. The projection can then be used to give an iterative but rapidly converging method of solving some
problems involving geodesics, in particular, nding the
intersection of two geodesics and nding the shortest path
from a point to a geodesic.



Fig. 20. The four geodesics connecting A and a point B,

2 = 26, 12 = 175.
The geodesics from a particular point A if continued past
the cut locus form an envelope illustrated in Fig. 19. Here
the geodesics for which 1 is a multiple of 3 are shown
in light blue. (The geodesics are only shown for their rst
passage close to the antipodal point, not for subsequent
ones.) Some geodesic circles are shown in green; these
form cusps on the envelope. The cut locus is shown in red.
The envelope is the locus of points which are conjugate
to A; points on the envelope may be computed by nding
the point at which m12 = 0 on a geodesic (and Newtons
method can be used to nd this point). Jacobi (1891) calls
this star-like gure produced by the envelope an astroid.

The Hammer retroazimuthal projection is a variation of

the azimuthal equidistant projection (Hammer 1910). A
geodesic is constructed from a central point A to some
other point B. The polar coordinates of the projection of
B are r = s12 and = 2 (which depends on the
azimuth at B, instead of at A). This can be used to determine the direction from an arbitrary point to some xed
center. Hinks (1929) suggested another application: if
the central point A is a beacon, such as the Rugby Clock,
then at an unknown location B the range and the bearing
to A can be measured and the projection can be used to Outside the astroid two geodesics intersect at each point;
estimate the location of B.
thus there are two geodesics (with a length approximately
half the circumference of the ellipsoid) between A and
these points. This corresponds to the situation on the
sphere where there are short and long routes on a
great circle between two points. Inside the astroid four
geodesics intersect at each point. Four such geodesics are
shown in Fig. 20 where the geodesics are numbered in order of increasing length. (This gure uses the same position for A as Fig. 15 and is drawn in the same projection.)
1.8 Envelope of geodesics
The two shorter geodesics are stable, i.e., m12 > 0, so that
there is no nearby path connecting the two points which is
shorter; the other two are unstable. Only the shortest line
Geodesics from a single point (f = 1/10, 1 = 30)
(the rst one) has 12 . All the geodesics are tangent
to the envelope which is shown in green in the gure. A
similar set of geodesics for the WGS84 ellipsoid is given
in this table (Karney 2011, Table 1):
The approximate shape of the astroid is given by

x2/3 + y 2/3 = 1
or, in parametric form,

x = cos3 ,
Fig. 19. The envelope of geodesics from a point A at 1
= 30.

y = sin3 .

The astroid is also the envelope of the family of lines


Software implementations


= 1,

S12 =

R22 (2 1 )+b2

tanh1 (e sin ) R22
2e sin
2(1 e2 sin2 )

where is a parameter. (These are generated by the rod

of the trammel of Archimedes.) This aids in nding a where the integral is over the geodesic line (so that is
good starting guess for 1 for Newtons method for in implicitly a function of ). Converting this into an integral
inverse problem in the case of nearly antipodal points over , we obtain
(Karney 2013, 5).
The astroid is the (exterior) evolute of the geodesic circles
t(e2 ) t(k 2 sin2 ) sin
centered at A. Likewise, the geodesic circles are involutes S12 = R22 E12 e2 a2 cos 0 sin 0
e2 k 2 sin2
of the astroid.


Area of a geodesic polygon

A geodesic polygon is a polygon whose sides are geodesics.

The area of such a polygon may be found by rst computing the area between a geodesic segment and the equator, i.e., the area of the quadrilateral AFHB in Fig. 1
(Danielsen 1989). Once this area is known, the area of a
polygon may be computed by summing the contributions
from all the edges of the polygon.

t(x) = 1 + x +

sinh1 x

and the notation E 12 = 2 1 is used for the geodesic

excess. The integral can be expressed as a series valid for
small f (Danielsen 1989) (Karney 2013, 6 and addendum).

Here we develop the formula for the area S 12 of AFHB The area of a geodesic polygon is given by summing S 12
following Sjberg (2006). The area of any closed region over its edges. This result holds provided2that the polygon
does not include a pole; if it does 2 R2 must be added
of the ellipsoid is
to the sum. If the edges are specied by their vertices,
then a convenient expression for E 12 is

T = dT =
cos d d,
sin 12 (2 + 1 )
where dT is an element of surface area and K is the
cos 2 (2 1 )
Gaussian curvature. Now the GaussBonnet theorem applied to a geodesic polygon states
This result follows from one of Napiers analogies.

K dT =

cos d d,

1.10 Software implementations

An implementation of Vincentys algorithm in Fortran

is provided by NGS (2012). Version 3.0 includes Vincentys treatment of nearly antipodal points (Vincenty

1975b). Vincentys original formulas are used in many

= 2
geographic information systems. Except for nearly anj
tipodal points (where the inverse method fails to conis the geodesic excess and j is the exterior angle at vertex verge), this method is accurate to about 0.1 mm for the
j. Multiplying the equation for by R2 2 , where R2 is the WGS84 ellipsoid (Karney 2011, 9).
authalic radius, and subtracting this from the equation for The algorithms given in Karney (2013) are included in
T gives[21]
GeographicLib (Karney 2015). These are accurate to
about 15 nanometers for the WGS84 ellipsoid. Implementations in several languages (C++, C, Fortran, Java,
JavaScript, Python, Matlab, and Maxima) are provided.
T = R2 +
R2 cos d d
In addition to solving the basic geodesic problem, this li)
brary can return m12 , M 12 , M 21 , and S 12 . The library
= R22 +

2 cos d d, includes a command-line utility, GeodSolve, for geodesic
(1 e sin )
calculations. As of version 4.9.1, the PROJ.4 library for
where the value of K for an ellipsoid has been substituted. cartographic projections uses the C implementation for
Applying this formula to the quadrilateral AFHB, noting geodesic calculations. This is exposed in the commandthat = 2 1 , and performing the integral over gives line utility, geod, and in the library itself.



The solution of the geodesic problems in terms of elliptic integrals is included in GeographicLib (in C++ only),
e.g., via the -E option to GeodSolve. This method of solution is about 23 times slower than using series expansions; however it provides accurate solutions for ellipsoids
of revolution with b/a [0.01, 100] (Karney 2013, addenda).

Geodesics on a triaxial ellipsoid

Solving the geodesic problem for an ellipsoid of revolution is, from the mathematical point of view, relatively
simple: because of symmetry, geodesics have a constant
of the motion, given by Clairauts relation allowing the
problem to be reduced to quadrature. By the early 19th
century (with the work of Legendre, Oriani, Bessel, et
al.), there was a complete understanding of the properties of geodesics on an ellipsoid of revolution.
On the other hand, geodesics on a triaxial ellipsoid (with
3 unequal axes) have no obvious constant of the motion Charles Dupin
and thus represented a challenging unsolved problem
in the rst half of the 19th century. In a remarkable paper, Jacobi (1839) discovered a constant of the motion
allowing this problem to be reduced to quadrature also h = 2 + 2 + 2 = 1,
(Klingenberg 1982, 3.5).[22][23]
where (X,Y,Z) are Cartesian coordinates centered on the
ellipsoid and, without loss of generality, a b c > 0.[24]
A point on the surface is specied by a latitude and longi2.1 Triaxial coordinate systems
tude. The geographical latitude and longitude (, ) are
dened by

cos cos
= cos sin .
The parametric latitude and longitude (, ) are dened
X = a cos cos ,
Y = b cos sin ,
Z = c sin .
Jacobi (1866, 2627) employed the ellipsoidal latitude
and longitude (, ) dened by

Gaspard Monge

a2 b2 sin2 c2 cos2

X = a cos
a2 c2
Y = b cos sin ,

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2 c2

Z = c sin
a2 c2

The key to the solution is expressing the problem in the

right coordinate system. Consider the ellipsoid dened In the limit b a, becomes the parametric latitude for
an oblate ellipsoid, so the use of the symbol is consistent


Jacobis solution


b2 sin2 + c2 cos2
d 2
(a2 b2 ) sin2 + (b2 c2 ) cos2
a2 b2 sin2 c2 cos2

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2
a2 sin2 + b2 cos2 c2

and the dierential equations for a geodesic are

a2 b2 sin2 c2 cos2

b2 sin2 + c2 cos2
(a2 b2 ) sin2 + (b2 c2 ) cos2

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2 c

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2
(a2 b2 ) sin2 + (b2 c2 ) cos2

Fig. 21. Ellipsoidal coordinates.

with the previous sections. However, is dierent from

the spherical longitude dened above.[25]


((a b ) sin + (b2 c2 ) cos2 )3/2

( 2
(a b2 ) cos sin a2 sin2 + b2 cos2 c2

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2

(b2 c2 ) cos sin a2 b2 sin2 c2 cos2

sin .
b2 sin2 + c2 cos2

Grid lines of constant (in blue) and (in green) are

given in Fig. 21. In contrast to (, ) and (, ), (, ) is
an orthogonal coordinate system: the grid lines intersect
at right angles. The principal sections of the ellipsoid,
dened by X = 0 and Z = 0 are shown in red. The third
principal section, Y = 0, is covered by the lines = 90
and = 0 or 180. These lines meet at four umbilical
points (two of which are visible in this gure) where the
principal radii of curvature are equal. Here and in the
other gures in this section the parameters of the ellipsoid
are a:b:c = 1.01:1:0.8, and it is viewed in an orthographic
projection from a point above = 40, = 30.

Jacobis solution

The grid lines of the ellipsoidal coordinates may be interpreted in three dierent ways
1. They are lines of curvature on the ellipsoid, i.e.,
they are parallel to the directions of principal curvature (Monge 1796).
2. They are also intersections of the ellipsoid with
confocal systems of hyperboloids of one and two
sheets (Dupin 1813, Part 5).
3. Finally they are geodesic ellipses and hyperbolas dened using two adjacent umbilical points (Hilbert &
Cohn-Vossen 1952, p. 188). For example, the lines
of constant in Fig. 21 can be generated with the
C. G. J. Jacobi
familiar string construction for ellipses with the ends
of the string pinned to the two umbilical points.
Jacobi showed that the geodesic equations, expressed in
ellipsoidal coordinates, are separable. Here is how he reConversions between these three types of latitudes and counted his discovery to his friend and neighbor Bessel
longitudes and the Cartesian coordinates are simple alge- (Jacobi 1839, Letter to Bessel),
braic exercises.
The element of length on the ellipsoid in ellipsoidal coordinates is given by

The day before yesterday, I reduced to

quadrature the problem of geodesic lines on



28) is

b2 sin2 + c2 cos2 d

a2 b2 sin2 c2 cos2 (b2 c2 ) cos2

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2 d

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2 c2 (a2 b2 ) sin2 +

As Jacobi notes a function of the angle equals a function of the angle . These two functions are just Abelian
integrals... Two constants and appear in the solution.
Typically is zero if the lower limits of the integrals are
taken to be the starting point of the geodesic and the direction of the geodesics is determined by . However,
for geodesics that start at an umbilical points, we have
= 0 and determines the direction at the umbilical point.
The constant may be expressed as
Joseph Liouville

= (b2 c2 ) cos2 sin2 (a2 b2 ) sin2 cos2 ,

where is the angle the geodesic makes with lines of constant . In the limit b a, this reduces to sin cos =
const., the familiar Clairaut relation. A nice derivation of
Jacobis result is given by Darboux (1894, 583584)
where he gives the solution found by Liouville (1846) for
general quadratic surfaces. In this formulation, the distance along the geodesic, s, is found using

b2 sin2 + c2 cos2

(a2 b2 ) sin + (b2 c2 ) cos2
a2 b2 sin2 c2 cos2 (b2

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2 c2 (a

J. G. Darboux

an ellipsoid with three unequal axes. They are

the simplest formulas in the world, Abelian
integrals, which become the well known
elliptic integrals if 2 axes are set equal.
Knigsberg, 28th Dec. '38.
The solution given by Jacobi (Jacobi 1839) (Jacobi 1866,

An alternative expression for the distance is

b2 sin2 + c2 cos2 (b2 c2 ) cos2 d

ds =
a2 b2 sin2 c2 cos2

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2 (a2 b2 ) sin2 + d

a2 sin2 + b2 cos2 c2



Survey of triaxial geodesics

Survey of triaxial geodesics

Transpolar geodesics, 1 = 90, 1 = 180.

Circumpolar geodesics, 1 = 0, 1 = 90.

Fig. 24. 1 = 39.9.

Fig. 22. 1 = 45.1.

Fig. 25. 1 = 9.966.

Fig. 23. 1 = 87.48.
On a triaxial ellipsoid, there are only 3 simple closed
geodesics, the three principal sections of the ellipsoid
given by X = 0, Y = 0, and Z = 0.[26] To survey the other
geodesics, it is convenient to consider geodesics which intersect the middle principal section, Y = 0, at right angles.
Such geodesics are shown in Figs. 2226, which use the
same ellipsoid parameters and the same viewing direction as Fig. 21. In addition, the three principal ellipses
are shown in red in each of these gures.
If the starting point is 1 (90, 90), 1 = 0, and 1
= 90, then > 0 and the geodesic encircles the ellipsoid in a circumpolar sense. The geodesic oscillates
north and south of the equator; on each oscillation it completes slightly less that a full circuit around the ellipsoid
resulting, in the typical case, in the geodesic lling the
area bounded by the two latitude lines = 1 . Two examples are given in Figs. 22 and 23. Figure 22 shows
practically the same behavior as for an oblate ellipsoid of
revolution (because a b); compare to Fig. 11. However, if the starting point is at a higher latitude (Fig. 22)
the distortions resulting from a b are evident. All tangents to a circumpolar geodesic touch the confocal singlesheeted hyperboloid which intersects the ellipsoid at
= 1 (Chasles 1846) (Hilbert & Cohn-Vossen 1952, pp.

If the starting point is 1 = 90, 1 (0, 180), and 1

= 180, then < 0 and the geodesic encircles the ellipsoid
in a transpolar sense. The geodesic oscillates east and
west of the ellipse X = 0; on each oscillation it completes
slightly more that a full circuit around the ellipsoid resulting, in the typical case, in the geodesic lling the area
bounded by the two longitude lines = 1 and = 180
1 . If a = b, all meridians are geodesics; the eect of a
b causes such geodesics to oscillate east and west. Two
examples are given in Figs. 24 and 25. The constriction
of the geodesic near the pole disappears in the limit b
c; in this case, the ellipsoid becomes a prolate ellipsoid
and Fig. 24 would resemble Fig. 12 (rotated on its side).
All tangents to a transpolar geodesic touch the confocal
double-sheeted hyperboloid which intersects the ellipsoid
at = 1 .
If the starting point is 1 = 90, 1 = 0 (an umbilical
point), and 1 = 135 (the geodesic leaves the ellipse Y
= 0 at right angles), then = 0 and the geodesic repeatedly intersects the opposite umbilical point and returns
to its starting point. However, on each circuit the angle at
which it intersects Y = 0 becomes closer to 0 or 180 so
that asymptotically the geodesic lies on the ellipse Y = 0
(Hart 1849) (Arnold 1989, p. 265). This is shown in Fig.
26. Note that a single geodesic does not ll an area on
the ellipsoid. All tangents to umbilical geodesics touch
the confocal hyperbola which intersects the ellipsoid at



Fig. 26. An umbilical geodesic, 1 = 90, 1 = 0, 1 = 135.

the umbilic points.

Umbilical geodesic enjoy several interesting properties.
Through any point on the ellipsoid, there are two
umbilical geodesics.
The geodesic distance between opposite umbilical
points is the same regardless of the initial direction Karl Weierstrass
of the geodesic.
Whereas the closed geodesics on the ellipses X = 0
and Z = 0 are stable (an geodesic initially close to
and nearly parallel to the ellipse remains close to the
ellipse), the closed geodesic on the ellipse Y = 0,
which goes through all 4 umbilical points, is exponentially unstable. If it is perturbed, it will swing
out of the plane Y = 0 and ip around before returning to close to the plane. (This behavior may repeat
depending on the nature of the initial perturbation.)
If the starting point A of a geodesic is not an umbilical
point, then its envelope is an astroid with two cusps lying
on = 1 and the other two on = 1 + (Sinclair
2003). The cut locus for A is the portion of the line =
1 between the cusps (Itoh & Kiyohara 2004).
(Panou 2013) gives a method for solving the inverse problem for a triaxial ellipsoid by directly integrating the system of ordinary dierential equations for a geodesic.
(Thus, it does not utilize Jacobis solution.)


The direct and inverse geodesic problems no longer play Henri Poincar
the central role in geodesy that they once did. Instead
of solving adjustment of geodetic networks as a twodimensional problem in spheroidal trigonometry, these (Vincenty & Bowring 1978). Nevertheless, terrestrial
problem are now solved by three-dimensional methods geodesics still play an important role in several areas:

for measuring distances and areas in geographic information systems;
the denition of maritime boundaries (UNCLOS
in the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration
for area navigation (RNAV 2007);
the method of measuring distances in the FAI Sporting Code (FAI 2013).
By the principle of least action, many problems in physics
can be formulated as a variational problem similar to that
for geodesics. Indeed, the geodesic problem is equivalent to the motion of a particle constrained to move on
the surface, but otherwise subject to no forces (Laplace
1799a) (Hilbert & Cohn-Vossen 1952, p. 222). For this
reason, geodesics on simple surfaces such as ellipsoids of
revolution or triaxial ellipsoids are frequently used as test
cases for exploring new methods. Examples include:
the development of elliptic integrals (Legendre
1811) and elliptic functions (Weierstrass 1861);
the development of dierential geometry (Gauss
1828) (Christoel 1869);
methods for solving systems of dierential equations
by a change of independent variables (Jacobi 1839);
the study of caustics (Jacobi 1891);
investigations into the number and stability of periodic orbits (Poincar 1905);
in the limit c 0, geodesics on a triaxial ellipsoid
reduce to a case of dynamical billiards;
extensions to an arbitrary number of dimensions
(Knrrer 1980);
geodesic ow on a surface (Berger 2010, Chap. 12).

5 Notes
[1] Here 2 is the forward azimuth at B. Some authors calculate the back azimuth instead; this is given by 2 .
[2] This prompted a courteous note by Oriani (1826) noting
his previous work, of which, presumably, Bessel was unaware, and also a thinly veiled accusation of plagiarism
from Ivory (1826) (his phrase was second-hand from
Germany), which resulted in an angry rebuttal by Bessel
[3] Clairaut (1735) uses the circumlocution perpendiculars
to the meridian"; this refers to Cassinis proposed map
projection for France (Cassini 1735) where one of the coordinates was the distance from the Paris meridian.
[4] Kummell (1883) attempted to introduce the word
brachisthode for geodesic. This eort failed.
[5] Laplace (1799a) showed that a particle constrained to
move on a surface but otherwise subject to no forces
moves along a geodesic for that surface. Thus, Clairauts
relation is just a consequence of conservation of angular
momentum for a particle on a surface of revolution. A
similar proof is given by Bomford (1952, 8.06).
[6] In terms of , the element of distance on the ellipsoid is
given by ds2 = (a2 sin2 2 + b2 cos2 ) d2 + a2 cos2 d2 .
[7] It may be useful to impose the restriction that the surface
have a positive curvature everywhere so that the latitude
be single valued function of Z.
[8] Other choices of independent parameter are possible. In
particular many authors use the vertex of a geodesic (the
point of maximum latitude) as the origin for .
[9] Nowadays, the necessary algebraic manipulations, expanding in a Taylor series, integration, and performing trigonometric simplications, can be carrying using
a computer algebra system. Earlier, Levallois & Dupuy
(1952) gave recurrence relations for the series in terms of
Wallis integrals and Pittman (1986) describes a similar
[10] Legendre (1806, Art. 13) also gives a series for in terms
of s; but this is not suitable for large distances.
[11] Despite the presence of i = 1, the elliptic integrals in
Eqs. (6) and (7) are real.

See also
Geographical distance
Great-circle navigation
Meridian arc
Rhumb line
Vincentys formulae

[12] Rollins (2010) obtains dierent, but equivalent, expressions in terms of elliptic integrals.
[13] It is also possible to express the integrals in terms of Jacobi
elliptic functions (Jacobi 1855) (Luther 1855) (Forsyth
1896) (Thomas 1970, Appendix 1). Halphen (1888) gives
the solution for the complex quantities R exp(i) = X
iY in terms of Weierstrass sigma and zeta functions. This
form is of interest because the separate periods of latitude and longitude of the geodesic are captured in a single
doubly periodic function; see also Forsyth (1927, 75.)
[14] When solving for , , or using a formula for its tangent,
the quadrant should be determined from the signs of the
numerator of the expression for the tangent, e.g., using the
atan2 function.


[15] If 1 = 0 and 1 = , the equation for 1 is indeterminate and 1 = 0 may be used.

[16] Because tan = sin0 tan, changes quadrants in step
with . It is therefore straightforward to express 2 so that
12 indicates how often and in what sense the geodesic has
encircled the ellipsoid.
[17] Bessel (1825) treated the longitude integral approximately
in order to reduce the number of parameters in the equation from two to one so that it could be tabulated conveniently.
[18] If 1 = 2 = 0, take sin1 = sin1 = 0, consistent with
the relations (8); this gives 1 = 1 = .
[19] The ordering in relations (8) automatically results in 12
> 0.
[20] Bagratuni (1962, 17) uses the term coecient of convergence of ordinates for the geodesic scale.
[21] Sjberg (2006) multiplies by b2 instead of R2 2 . However, this leads to a singular integrand (Karney 2011, 15).
[22] This section is adapted from the documentation for GeographicLib (Karney 2015, Geodesics on a triaxial ellipsoid)
[23] Even though Jacobi and Weierstrass (1861) use terrestrial
geodesics as the motivation for their work, a triaxial ellipsoid approximates the Earth only slightly better than an ellipsoid of revolution. A better approximation to the shape
of the Earth is given by the geoid. However, geodesics on
a surface of the complexity of the geoid are partly chaotic
(Waters 2011).
[24] This notation for the semi-axes is incompatible with that
used in the previous section on ellipsoids of revolution,
where a and b stood for the equatorial radius and polar
semi-axis. Thus the corresponding inequalities are a = a
b > 0 for an oblate ellipsoid and b a = a > 0 for a
prolate ellipsoid.
[25] The limit b c gives a prolate ellipsoid with playing
the role of the parametric latitude.
[26] If c/a < , there are other simple closed geodesics similar
to those shown in Figs. 13 and 14 (Klingenberg 1982,

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7 External links
Online geodesic bibliography, approximately 180
books and articles on geodesics on ellipsoids together with links to online copies.
Implementations of Vincenty (1975a) for oblate ellipsoids:
NGS implementation, includes modications
described in Vincenty (1975b).
NGS online tools.
Online calculator from Geoscience Australia.
Javascript implementations of solutions to
direct problem and inverse problem.
Implementation of Karney (2013) for ellipsoids of
revolution in Geographiclib (Karney 2015):
GeographicLib web site for downloading library and documentation.
GeodSolve(1), man page for a utility for
geodesic calculations.
An online version of GeodSolve.
Planimeter(1), man page for a utility for calculating the area of geodesic polygons.
An online version of Planimeter.
geod(1), man page for the PROJ.4 utility for
geodesic calculations.
Javascript utility for direct and inverse problems and area calculations.
Drawing geodesics on Google Maps.
Matlab implementation of the geodesic routines (used for the gures for geodesics on ellipsoids of revolution in this article).
The rst description of the geodesic algorithms from (Karney 2009).
Geodesics on a triaxial ellipsoid:
Additional notes about Jacobis solution.
Caustics on an ellipsoid.


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