An ellipse (red) obtained as the intersection of a
cone with an inclined plane.
Ellipses: examples with increasing eccentricity
mathematics, an ellipse is a
plane curve surrounding two
focal points, such that for all points on the curve, the sum of the two distances to the focal points is a constant. As such, it generalizes a
circle, which is the special type of ellipse in which the two focal points are the same. The elongation of an ellipse is measured by its
eccentricity, a number ranging from (the
limiting case of a circle) to (the limiting case of infinite elongation, no longer an ellipse but a
An ellipse has a simple
algebraic solution for its area, but only approximations for its
perimeter (also known as
circumference), for which integration is required to obtain an exact solution.
Analytically, the equation of a standard ellipse centered at the origin with width and height is:
Assuming , the foci are for . The standard parametric equation is:
An ellipse may also be defined in terms of one focal point and a line outside the ellipse called the
directrix: for all points on the ellipse, the ratio between the distance to the
focus and the distance to the directrix is a constant. This constant ratio is the above-mentioned eccentricity:
Ellipses are common in
engineering. For example, the
orbit of each planet in the
Solar System is approximately an ellipse with the Sun at one focus point (more precisely, the focus is the
barycenter of the Sun–planet pair). The same is true for moons orbiting planets and all other systems of two astronomical bodies. The shapes of planets and stars are often well described by
ellipsoids. A circle viewed from a side angle looks like an ellipse: that is, the ellipse is the image of a circle under
perspective projection. The ellipse is also the simplest
Lissajous figure formed when the horizontal and vertical motions are
sinusoids with the same frequency: a similar effect leads to
elliptical polarization of light in
Ellipse: definition by focus and circular directrix
An ellipse can be defined geometrically as a set or
locus of points in the Euclidean plane:
Given two fixed points called the foci and a distance which is greater than the distance between the foci, the ellipse is the set of points such that the sum of the distances is equal to :
The midpoint of the line segment joining the foci is called the center of the ellipse. The line through the foci is called the major axis, and the line perpendicular to it through the center is the minor axis. The major axis intersects the ellipse at two vertices, which have distance to the center. The distance of the foci to the center is called the focal distance or linear eccentricity. The quotient is the eccentricity.
The case yields a circle and is included as a special type of ellipse.
The equation can be viewed in a different way (see figure):
If is the circle with center and radius , then the distance of a point to the circle equals the distance to the focus :
is called the circular directrix (related to focus ) of the ellipse. This property should not be confused with the definition of an ellipse using a directrix line below.
Dandelin spheres, one can prove that any section of a cone with a plane is an ellipse, assuming the plane does not contain the apex and has slope less than that of the lines on the cone.
In Cartesian coordinates
a: semi-major axis,
b: semi-minor axis,
c: linear eccentricity,
p: semi-latus rectum (usually ).
The standard form of an ellipse in Cartesian coordinates assumes that the origin is the center of the ellipse, the x-axis is the major axis, and:
the foci are the points ,
the vertices are .
For an arbitrary point the distance to the focus is
and to the other focus . Hence the point is on the ellipse whenever:
radicals by suitable squarings and using (see diagram) produces the standard equation of the ellipse:
or, solved for y:
The width and height parameters are called the
semi-major and semi-minor axes. The top and bottom points are the co-vertices. The distances from a point on the ellipse to the left and right foci are and .
It follows from the equation that the ellipse is symmetric with respect to the coordinate axes and hence with respect to the origin.
In principle, the canonical ellipse equation may have (and hence the ellipse would be taller than it is wide). This form can be converted to the standard form by transposing the variable names and and the parameter names and
This is the distance from the center to a focus: .
The eccentricity can be expressed as:
assuming An ellipse with equal axes () has zero eccentricity, and is a circle.
The length of the chord through one focus, perpendicular to the major axis, is called the latus rectum. One half of it is the semi-latus rectum. A calculation shows:
An arbitrary line intersects an ellipse at 0, 1, or 2 points, respectively called an exterior line, tangent and secant. Through any point of an ellipse there is a unique tangent. The tangent at a point of the ellipse has the coordinate equation:
Let be a point on an ellipse and be the equation of any line containing . Inserting the line's equation into the ellipse equation and respecting yields:
There are then cases:
Then line and the ellipse have only point in common, and is a tangent. The tangent direction has
perpendicular vector, so the tangent line has equation for some . Because is on the tangent and the ellipse, one obtains .
Then line has a second point in common with the ellipse, and is a secant.
Using (1) one finds that is a tangent vector at point , which proves the vector equation.
If and are two points of the ellipse such that , then the points lie on two conjugate diameters (see
below). (If , the ellipse is a circle and "conjugate" means "orthogonal".)
If the standard ellipse is shifted to have center , its equation is
Then the ellipse is a non-degenerate real ellipse if and only if C∆ < 0. If C∆ > 0, we have an imaginary ellipse, and if ∆ = 0, we have a point ellipse.: p.63
The general equation's coefficients can be obtained from known semi-major axis , semi-minor axis , center coordinates , and rotation angle (the angle from the positive horizontal axis to the ellipse's major axis) using the formulae:
These expressions can be derived from the canonical equation by an affine transformation of the coordinates :
Conversely, the canonical form parameters can be obtained from the general form coefficients by the equations:
The construction of points based on the parametric equation and the interpretation of parameter t, which is due to de la Hire
Ellipse points calculated by the rational representation with equal spaced parameters ().
Replacing and of the standard representation yields:
Here is the slope of the tangent at the corresponding ellipse point, is the upper and the lower half of the ellipse. The vertices, having vertical tangents, are not covered by the representation.
The equation of the tangent at point has the form . The still unknown can be determined by inserting the coordinates of the corresponding ellipse point :
This description of the tangents of an ellipse is an essential tool for the determination of the
orthoptic of an ellipse. The orthoptic article contains another proof, without differential calculus and trigonometric formulae.
Any ellipse is an affine image of the unit circle with equation .
An affine transformation of the Euclidean plane has the form , where is a regular
matrix (with non-zero
determinant) and is an arbitrary vector. If are the column vectors of the matrix , the unit circle , , is mapped onto the ellipse:
Here is the center and are the directions of two
conjugate diameters, in general not perpendicular.
The four vertices of the ellipse are , for a parameter defined by:
(If , then .) This is derived as follows. The tangent vector at point is:
At a vertex parameter , the tangent is perpendicular to the major/minor axes, so:
Expanding and applying the identities gives the equation for
From Apollonios theorem (see below) one obtains:
The area of an ellipse is
With the abbreviations
the statements of Apollonios's theorem can be written as:
Solving this nonlinear system for yields the semiaxes:
Solving the parametric representation for by
Cramer's rule and using , one obtains the implicit representation
Each of the two lines parallel to the minor axis, and at a distance of from it, is called a directrix of the ellipse (see diagram).
For an arbitrary point of the ellipse, the quotient of the distance to one focus and to the corresponding directrix (see diagram) is equal to the eccentricity:
The proof for the pair follows from the fact that and satisfy the equation
The second case is proven analogously.
The converse is also true and can be used to define an ellipse (in a manner similar to the definition of a parabola):
For any point (focus), any line (directrix) not through , and any real number with the ellipse is the locus of points for which the quotient of the distances to the point and to the line is that is:
The extension to , which is the eccentricity of a circle, is not allowed in this context in the Euclidean plane. However, one may consider the directrix of a circle to be the
line at infinity in the
(The choice yields a parabola, and if , a hyperbola.)
Pencil of conics with a common vertex and common semi-latus rectum
Let , and assume is a point on the curve.
The directrix has equation . With , the relation produces the equations
The substitution yields
This is the equation of an ellipse (), or a parabola (), or a hyperbola (). All of these non-degenerate conics have, in common, the origin as a vertex (see diagram).
If , introduce new parameters so that , and then the equation above becomes
which is the equation of an ellipse with center , the x-axis as major axis, and
the major/minor semi axis .
Construction of a directrix
Construction of a directrix
Because of point of directrix (see diagram) and focus are inverse with respect to the
circle inversion at circle (in diagram green). Hence can be constructed as shown in the diagram. Directrix is the perpendicular to the main axis at point .
If the focus is and the directrix , one obtains the equation
(The right side of the equation uses the
Hesse normal form of a line to calculate the distance .)
Focus-to-focus reflection property
Ellipse: the tangent bisects the supplementary angle of the angle between the lines to the foci.
Rays from one focus reflect off the ellipse to pass through the other focus.
An ellipse possesses the following property:
The normal at a point bisects the angle between the lines .
Because the tangent is perpendicular to the normal, the statement is true for the tangent and the supplementary angle of the angle between the lines to the foci (see diagram), too.
Let be the point on the line with the distance to the focus , is the semi-major axis of the ellipse. Let line be the bisector of the supplementary angle to the angle between the lines . In order to prove that is the tangent line at point , one checks that any point on line which is different from cannot be on the ellipse. Hence has only point in common with the ellipse and is, therefore, the tangent at point .
From the diagram and the
triangle inequality one recognizes that holds, which means: . The equality is true from the
Angle bisector theorem because and . But if is a point of the ellipse, the sum should be .
The rays from one focus are reflected by the ellipse to the second focus. This property has optical and acoustic applications similar to the reflective property of a parabola (see
Definition of conjugate diameters
Orthogonal diameters of a circle with a square of tangents, midpoints of parallel chords and an affine image, which is an ellipse with conjugate diameters, a parallelogram of tangents and midpoints of chords.
The midpoints of parallel chords lie on a diameter.
An affine transformation preserves parallelism and midpoints of line segments, so this property is true for any ellipse. (Note that the parallel chords and the diameter are no longer orthogonal.)
Two diameters of an ellipse are conjugate if the midpoints of chords parallel to lie on
From the diagram one finds:
Two diameters of an ellipse are conjugate whenever the tangents at and are parallel to .
Conjugate diameters in an ellipse generalize orthogonal diameters in a circle.
In the parametric equation for a general ellipse given above,
any pair of points belong to a diameter, and the pair belong to its conjugate diameter.
For the common parametric representation of the ellipse with equation one gets: The points
(signs: (+,+) or (-,-) )
(signs: (-,+) or (+,-) )
are conjugate and
In case of a circle the last equation collapses to
Theorem of Apollonios on conjugate diameters
Theorem of Apollonios
For the alternative area formula
For an ellipse with semi-axes the following is true:
Let and be halves of two conjugate diameters (see diagram) then
The triangle with sides (see diagram) has the constant area , which can be expressed by , too. is the altitude of point and the angle between the half diameters. Hence the area of the ellipse (see section
metric properties) can be written as .
The parallelogram of tangents adjacent to the given conjugate diameters has the
Let the ellipse be in the canonical form with parametric equation
The two points are on conjugate diameters (see previous section). From trigonometric formulae one obtains and
The area of the triangle generated by is
and from the diagram it can be seen that the area of the parallelogram is 8 times that of . Hence
For the ellipse the intersection points of orthogonal tangents lie on the circle .
This circle is called orthoptic or
director circle of the ellipse (not to be confused with the circular directrix defined above).
Central projection of circles (gate)
Ellipses appear in
descriptive geometry as images (parallel or central projection) of circles. There exist various tools to draw an ellipse. Computers provide the fastest and most accurate method for drawing an ellipse. However, technical tools (ellipsographs) to draw an ellipse without a computer exist. The principle of ellipsographs were known to Greek mathematicians such as
For any method described below, knowledge of the axes and the semi-axes is necessary (or equivalently: the foci and the semi-major axis).
If this presumption is not fulfilled one has to know at least two conjugate diameters. With help of
Rytz's construction the axes and semi-axes can be retrieved.
Draw the two circles centered at the center of the ellipse with radii and the axes of the ellipse.
Draw a line through the center, which intersects the two circles at point and , respectively.
Draw a line through that is parallel to the minor axis and a line through that is parallel to the major axis. These lines meet at an ellipse point (see diagram).
Repeat steps (2) and (3) with different lines through the center.
de La Hire's method
Animation of the method
Ellipse: gardener's method
The characterization of an ellipse as the locus of points so that sum of the distances to the foci is constant leads to a method of drawing one using two
drawing pins, a length of string, and a pencil. In this method, pins are pushed into the paper at two points, which become the ellipse's foci. A string is tied at each end to the two pins; its length after tying is . The tip of the pencil then traces an ellipse if it is moved while keeping the string taut. Using two pegs and a rope, gardeners use this procedure to outline an elliptical flower bed—thus it is called the gardener's ellipse.
This representation can be modeled technically by two simple methods. In both cases center, the axes and semi axes have to be known.
The first method starts with
a strip of paper of length .
The point, where the semi axes meet is marked by . If the strip slides with both ends on the axes of the desired ellipse, then point traces the ellipse. For the proof one shows that point has the parametric representation , where parameter is the angle of the slope of the paper strip.
A technical realization of the motion of the paper strip can be achieved by a
Tusi couple (see animation). The device is able to draw any ellipse with a fixed sum , which is the radius of the large circle. This restriction may be a disadvantage in real life. More flexible is the second paper strip method.
Ellipse construction: paper strip method 1
Ellipses with Tusi couple. Two examples: red and cyan.
A variation of the paper strip method 1 uses the observation that the midpoint of the paper strip is moving on the circle with center (of the ellipse) and radius . Hence, the paperstrip can be cut at point into halves, connected again by a joint at and the sliding end fixed at the center (see diagram). After this operation the movement of the unchanged half of the paperstrip is unchanged. This variation requires only one sliding shoe.
Variation of the paper strip method 1
Animation of the variation of the paper strip method 1
Ellipse construction: paper strip method 2
The second method starts with
a strip of paper of length .
One marks the point, which divides the strip into two substrips of length and . The strip is positioned onto the axes as described in the diagram. Then the free end of the strip traces an ellipse, while the strip is moved. For the proof, one recognizes that the tracing point can be described parametrically by , where parameter is the angle of slope of the paper strip.
This method is the base for several ellipsographs (see section below).
Similar to the variation of the paper strip method 1 a variation of the paper strip method 2 can be established (see diagram) by cutting the part between the axes into halves.
pencils of lines at two points (all lines containing and , respectively) and a projective but not perspective mapping of onto , then the intersection points of corresponding lines form a non-degenerate projective conic section.
For the generation of points of the ellipse one uses the pencils at the vertices . Let be an upper co-vertex of the ellipse and .
is the center of the rectangle . The side of the rectangle is divided into n equal spaced line segments and this division is projected parallel with the diagonal as direction onto the line segment and assign the division as shown in the diagram. The parallel projection together with the reverse of the orientation is part of the projective mapping between the pencils at and needed. The intersection points of any two related lines and are points of the uniquely defined ellipse. With help of the points the points of the second quarter of the ellipse can be determined. Analogously one obtains the points of the lower half of the ellipse.
Steiner generation can also be defined for hyperbolas and parabolas. It is sometimes called a parallelogram method because one can use other points rather than the vertices, which starts with a parallelogram instead of a rectangle.
An ellipse (in red) as a special case of the
hypotrochoid with R = 2r
The ellipse is a special case of the
hypotrochoid when , as shown in the adjacent image. The special case of a moving circle with radius inside a circle with radius is called a
Inscribed angles and three-point form
Circle: inscribed angle theorem
A circle with equation is uniquely determined by three points not on a line. A simple way to determine the parameters uses the inscribed angle theorem for circles:
For four points (see diagram) the following statement is true:
The four points are on a circle if and only if the angles at and are equal.
Usually one measures inscribed angles by a degree or radian θ, but here the following measurement is more convenient:
In order to measure the angle between two lines with equations one uses the quotient:
Inscribed angle theorem for circles
For four points no three of them on a line, we have the following (see diagram):
The four points are on a circle, if and only if the angles at and are equal. In terms of the angle measurement above, this means:
At first the measure is available only for chords not parallel to the y-axis, but the final formula works for any chord.
Three-point form of circle equation
As a consequence, one obtains an equation for the circle determined by three non-colinear points :
The radius is the distance between any of the three points and the center.
This section, we consider the family of ellipses defined by equations with a fixed eccentricity . It is convenient to use the parameter:
and to write the ellipse equation as:
where q is fixed and vary over the real numbers. (Such ellipses have their axes parallel to the coordinate axes: if , the major axis is parallel to the x-axis; if , it is parallel to the y-axis.)
Inscribed angle theorem for an ellipse
Like a circle, such an ellipse is determined by three points not on a line.
For this family of ellipses, one introduces the following
q-analog angle measure, which is not a function of the usual angle measure θ:
In order to measure an angle between two lines with equations one uses the quotient:
Inscribed angle theorem for ellipses
Given four points , no three of them on a line (see diagram).
The four points are on an ellipse with equation if and only if the angles at and are equal in the sense of the measurement above—that is, if
At first the measure is available only for chords which are not parallel to the y-axis. But the final formula works for any chord. The proof follows from a straightforward calculation. For the direction of proof given that the points are on an ellipse, one can assume that the center of the ellipse is the origin.
Three-point form of ellipse equation
A consequence, one obtains an equation for the ellipse determined by three non-colinear points :
For example, for and one obtains the three-point form
and after conversion
Analogously to the circle case, the equation can be written more clearly using vectors:
Any ellipse can be described in a suitable coordinate system by an equation . The equation of the tangent at a point of the ellipse is If one allows point to be an arbitrary point different from the origin, then
point is mapped onto the line , not through the center of the ellipse.
This relation between points and lines is a
Such a relation between points and lines generated by a conic is called pole-polar relation or polarity. The pole is the point; the polar the line.
By calculation one can confirm the following properties of the pole-polar relation of the ellipse:
For a point (pole) on the ellipse, the polar is the tangent at this point (see diagram: ).
For a pole outside the ellipse, the intersection points of its polar with the ellipse are the tangency points of the two tangents passing (see diagram: ).
For a point within the ellipse, the polar has no point with the ellipse in common (see diagram: ).
The intersection point of two polars is the pole of the line through their poles.
The foci and , respectively, and the directrices and , respectively, belong to pairs of pole and polar. Because they are even polar pairs with respect to the circle , the directrices can be constructed by compass and straightedge (see
Pole-polar relations exist for hyperbolas and parabolas as well.
All metric properties given below refer to an ellipse with equation
except for the section on the area enclosed by a tilted ellipse, where the generalized form of Eq.(1) will be given.
where and are the lengths of the semi-major and semi-minor axes, respectively. The area formula is intuitive: start with a circle of radius (so its area is ) and stretch it by a factor to make an ellipse. This scales the area by the same factor:  However, using the same approach for the circumference would be fallacious – compare the
integrals and . It is also easy to rigorously prove the area formula using integration as follows. Equation (1) can be rewritten as For this curve is the top half of the ellipse. So twice the integral of over the interval will be the area of the ellipse:
The second integral is the area of a circle of radius that is, So
An ellipse defined implicitly by has area
The area can also be expressed in terms of eccentricity and the length of the semi-major axis as (obtained by solving for
flattening, then computing the semi-minor axis).
The area enclosed by a tilted ellipse is .
So far we have dealt with erect ellipses, whose major and minor axes are parallel to the and axes. However, some applications require tilted ellipses. In charged-particle beam optics, for instance, the enclosed area of an erect or tilted ellipse is an important property of the beam, its emittance. In this case a simple formula still applies, namely
where is the
double factorial (extended to negative odd integers by the recurrence relation , for ). This series converges, but by expanding in terms of James Ivory and Bessel derived an expression that converges much more rapidly:
More generally, the
arc length of a portion of the circumference, as a function of the angle subtended (or x-coordinates of any two points on the upper half of the ellipse), is given by an incomplete
elliptic integral. The upper half of an ellipse is parameterized by
Then the arc length from to is:
This is equivalent to
where is the incomplete elliptic integral of the second kind with parameter
Some lower and upper bounds on the circumference of the canonical ellipse with are
Wave pattern of a little droplet dropped into mercury in one focus of the ellipse
If the water's surface is disturbed at one focus of an elliptical water tank, the circular waves of that disturbance, after
reflecting off the walls, converge simultaneously to a single point: the second focus. This is a consequence of the total travel length being the same along any wall-bouncing path between the two foci.
Similarly, if a light source is placed at one focus of an elliptic
mirror, all light rays on the plane of the ellipse are reflected to the second focus. Since no other smooth curve has such a property, it can be used as an alternative definition of an ellipse. (In the special case of a circle with a source at its center all light would be reflected back to the center.) If the ellipse is rotated along its major axis to produce an ellipsoidal mirror (specifically, a
prolate spheroid), this property holds for all rays out of the source. Alternatively, a cylindrical mirror with elliptical cross-section can be used to focus light from a linear
fluorescent lamp along a line of the paper; such mirrors are used in some
More generally, in the gravitational
two-body problem, if the two bodies are bound to each other (that is, the total energy is negative), their orbits are
similar ellipses with the common
barycenter being one of the foci of each ellipse. The other focus of either ellipse has no known physical significance. The orbit of either body in the reference frame of the other is also an ellipse, with the other body at the same focus.
Keplerian elliptical orbits are the result of any radially directed attraction force whose strength is inversely proportional to the square of the distance. Thus, in principle, the motion of two oppositely charged particles in empty space would also be an ellipse. (However, this conclusion ignores losses due to
electromagnetic radiation and
quantum effects, which become significant when the particles are moving at high speed.)
The general solution for a
harmonic oscillator in two or more
dimensions is also an ellipse. Such is the case, for instance, of a long pendulum that is free to move in two dimensions; of a mass attached to a fixed point by a perfectly elastic
spring; or of any object that moves under influence of an attractive force that is directly proportional to its distance from a fixed attractor. Unlike Keplerian orbits, however, these "harmonic orbits" have the center of attraction at the geometric center of the ellipse, and have fairly simple equations of motion.
electronics, the relative phase of two sinusoidal signals can be compared by feeding them to the vertical and horizontal inputs of an
oscilloscope. If the
Lissajous figure display is an ellipse, rather than a straight line, the two signals are out of phase.
non-circular gears with the same elliptical outline, each pivoting around one focus and positioned at the proper angle, turn smoothly while maintaining contact at all times. Alternatively, they can be connected by a
link chain or
timing belt, or in the case of a bicycle the main
chainring may be elliptical, or an
ovoid similar to an ellipse in form. Such elliptical gears may be used in mechanical equipment to produce variable
angular speed or
torque from a constant rotation of the driving axle, or in the case of a bicycle to allow a varying crank rotation speed with inversely varying
Elliptical bicycle gears make it easier for the chain to slide off the cog when changing gears.
An example gear application would be a device that winds thread onto a conical
bobbin on a
spinning machine. The bobbin would need to wind faster when the thread is near the apex than when it is near the base.
pumped solid-state lasers, elliptical cylinder-shaped reflectors have been used to direct light from the pump lamp (coaxial with one ellipse focal axis) to the active medium rod (coaxial with the second focal axis).
In laser-plasma produced
EUV light sources used in microchip
lithography, EUV light is generated by plasma positioned in the primary focus of an ellipsoid mirror and is collected in the secondary focus at the input of the lithography machine.
Statistics and finance
statistics, a bivariate
random vector is
jointly elliptically distributed if its iso-density contours—loci of equal values of the density function—are ellipses. The concept extends to an arbitrary number of elements of the random vector, in which case in general the iso-density contours are ellipsoids. A special case is the
multivariate normal distribution. The elliptical distributions are important in
finance because if rates of return on assets are jointly elliptically distributed then all portfolios can be characterized completely by their mean and variance—that is, any two portfolios with identical mean and variance of portfolio return have identical distributions of portfolio return.
Drawing an ellipse as a
graphics primitive is common in standard display libraries, such as the MacIntosh
QuickDraw API, and
Direct2D on Windows.
Jack Bresenham at IBM is most famous for the invention of 2D drawing primitives, including line and circle drawing, using only fast integer operations such as addition and branch on carry bit. M. L. V. Pitteway extended Bresenham's algorithm for lines to conics in 1967. Another efficient generalization to draw ellipses was invented in 1984 by Jerry Van Aken.
In 1970 Danny Cohen presented at the "Computer Graphics 1970" conference in England a linear algorithm for drawing ellipses and circles. In 1971, L. B. Smith published similar algorithms for all conic sections and proved them to have good properties. These algorithms need only a few multiplications and additions to calculate each vector.
It is beneficial to use a parametric formulation in computer graphics because the density of points is greatest where there is the most curvature. Thus, the change in slope between each successive point is small, reducing the apparent "jaggedness" of the approximation.
Drawing with Bézier paths
Composite Bézier curves may also be used to draw an ellipse to sufficient accuracy, since any ellipse may be construed as an
affine transformation of a circle. The spline methods used to draw a circle may be used to draw an ellipse, since the constituent
Bézier curves behave appropriately under such transformations.
It is sometimes useful to find the minimum bounding ellipse on a set of points. The
ellipsoid method is quite useful for solving this problem.