Spherical trigonometry

From Academic Kids

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Right spherical triangle

Spherical trigonometry is a part of spherical geometry that deals with polygons (especially triangles) on the sphere and explains how to find relations between the involved angles. This is of great importance for calculations in astronomy and navigation.

On the surface of a sphere, the closest analogue to straight lines are great circles, i.e. circles whose center coincide with the center of the sphere. (For examples, meridians and the equator are great circles on the Earth.) As lines on a plane, great circles on a sphere are the closest connection of two points (if you constrain yourself to lines on the sphere). (cf. geodesic)

An area on the sphere which is bounded by arcs of great circles is called a spherical polygon. Note that, unlike the case on a plane, spherical "biangles" (two-sided analogs to triangle) are possible (think about peeling an orange).

The sides of these polygons are most conveniently specified not by their length but by the angle under which its endpoints appear when looked at from the sphere's center. Note that this arc angle, measured in radians, and multiplied by the sphere's radius, is the arc length.

Hence, a spherical triangle is specified as usual by its corner angles and its sides, but the sides are not given by their length, but by their arc angle.

Remarkably, the sum of the corner angle is not 180°, as in a planar triangle, but always larger. This surplus is called the spherical excess E: E = α + β + γ − 180°. It allows calculation of the surface area A surrounded by the triangle, which is simply given by A = R2 · E. Here, R is the radius of the sphere; if R = 1, then A = E. In other words: E is the solid angle, as measured in steradians, spanned up by the triangle. This formula is an application of the Gauss-Bonnet theorem.

To solve a geometric problem on the sphere, one dissects the relevant figure into right spherical triangles (i.e.: one of the triangle's corner angles is 90°) because one can then use Neper's pentagon:

Missing image
Neper's Circle shows the relations of parts of a right spherical triangle

Neper's pentagon (also known as Neper's circle) is a mnemonic aid aid to easily find all relations between the angles in a right spherical triangle:

Write the six angles of the triangle in the form of a circle, sticking to the order as they appear in the triangle (i.e.: start with a corner angle, write the arc angle of an attached side next to it, proceed with the next corner angle, etc. and close the circle). Then cross out the 90° corner angle and replace the arc angles adjacent to it by their complement to 90° (i.e. replace, say, a by 90° - a). The five numbers that you now have on your paper form Neper's Pentagon (or Neper's Circle). For them, it holds that the cosine of each angle is equal to

  • the product of the cotangents of the angles written next to it, and is also equal to
  • the product of the sines of the two angles written opposed to it.

See also the Haversine formula, which relates the lengths of sides and angles in spherical triangles in a numerically stable form for navigation.

See also

External link

eo:Sfera trigonometrio fr:Trigonométrie sphérique


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