Shaded wireframe rendering of an ellipsoid with a = 3, b = 2, c = 1 (scalene ellipsoid).
Wireframe rendering of an ellipsoid (oblate spheroid)

An ellipsoid is a closed type of quadric surface that is a higher dimensional analogue of an ellipse. The equation of a standard axis-aligned ellipsoid body in an xyz-Cartesian coordinate system is

{x^2 \over a^2}+{y^2 \over b^2}+{z^2 \over c^2}=1,

where a and b are the equatorial radii (along the x and y axes) and c is the polar radius (along the z-axis), all of which are fixed positive real numbers determining the shape of the ellipsoid.

More generally, an arbitrarily oriented ellipsoid, centered at v, is defined by the equation

(\mathbf{x}-v)^\mathrm{T} A^{-1} (\mathbf{x}-v) = 1,

where A is a positive definite matrix and x, v are vectors. In that case, the eigenvectors of A define the principal directions of the ellipsoid and the square root of the eigenvalues are the corresponding equatorial radii.

If all three radii are equal, the solid body is a sphere; if two radii are equal, the ellipsoid is a spheroid:

The points (a,0,0), (0,b,0) and (0,0,c) lie on the surface and the line segments from the origin to these points are called the semi-principal axes. These correspond to the semi-major axis and semi-minor axis of the appropriate ellipses.

Scalene ellipsoids are frequently called "triaxial ellipsoids",[1] the implication being that all three axes need to be specified to define the shape.

Any planar cross section passing through the center of an ellipsoid forms an ellipse on its surface, with the possible special case of a circle if the three radii are the same (i.e., the ellipsoid is a sphere) or if the plane is parallel to two radii that are equal.



Using the common coordinates, where \beta\,\! is a point's reduced, or parametric latitude and {\color{white}+}\!\!\!\lambda{\color{white}'}\,\! is its planetographic longitude, an ellipsoid can be parameterized by:

(Note that this parameterization is not one-to-one at the poles, where \scriptstyle{{\color{white}|}\beta=\pm{\frac{\pi}{2}}}{\color{white}|}\,\!)


The volume of an ellipsoid is given by the formula

\frac{4}{3}\pi abc.\,\!

Note that this equation reduces to that of the volume of a sphere when all three elliptic radii are equal, and to that of an oblate or prolate spheroid when two of them are equal. The volumes of the maximum inscribed and minimum circumscribed boxes are respectively:

\frac{8}{3\sqrt 3} abc.\,\! and  8abc.\,\!.

Surface area

The surface area of an ellipsoid is given by:




is the modular angle, or angular eccentricity; m=\frac{b^2-c^2}{b^2\sin^2(\alpha)}\,\! and F(\alpha,m)\,\!, E(\alpha,m)\,\! are the incomplete elliptic integrals of the first and second kind.

Unlike the surface area of a sphere, the surface area of a general ellipsoid cannot be expressed exactly by an elementary function.

An approximate formula is:

\approx 4\pi\!\left(\frac{ a^p b^p+a^p c^p+b^p c^p }{3}\right)^{1/p}.\,\!

Where p ≈ 1.6075 yields a relative error of at most 1.061% (Knud Thomsen's formula [2]); a value of p = 8/5 = 1.6 is optimal for nearly spherical ellipsoids, with a relative error of at most 1.178% (David W. Cantrell's formula).

Exact formulae can be obtained for the case a = b (i.e., a circular equator):

 If oblate: 2\pi\!\left(a^2+c^2\frac{\operatorname{arctanh}(\sin(\alpha))}{\sin(\alpha)}\right);\,\!
If prolate: 2\pi\!\left(a^2+c^2\frac{\alpha}{\tan(\alpha)}\right);\,\!

In the "flat" limit of c \ll a, b\,\!, the area is approximately 2\pi ab.\,\!

Mass properties

The mass of an ellipsoid of uniform density is:

m = \rho V = \rho \frac{4}{3} \pi abc\,\!

where \rho\,\! is the density.

The mass moments of inertia of an ellipsoid of uniform density are:

I_{\mathrm{xx}} = m {b^2+c^2 \over 5}
I_{\mathrm{yy}} = m {c^2+a^2 \over 5}
I_{\mathrm{zz}} = m {a^2+b^2 \over 5}

where I_{\mathrm{xx}}\,\!, I_{\mathrm{yy}}\,\!, and I_{\mathrm{zz}}\,\! are the moments of inertia about the x, y, and z axes, respectively. Products of inertia are zero.

It can easily be shown that if a=b=c, then the moments of inertia reduce to those for a uniform-density sphere.

Conversely, if the mass and principal inertias of an arbitrary rigid body are known, an equivalent ellipsoid of uniform density can be constructed, with the following characteristics:

a = \sqrt{{5 \over 2} {I_{\mathrm{yy}}+I_{\mathrm{zz}}-I_{\mathrm{xx}} \over m}}
b = \sqrt{{5 \over 2} {I_{\mathrm{zz}}+I_{\mathrm{xx}}-I_{\mathrm{yy}} \over m}}
c = \sqrt{{5 \over 2} {I_{\mathrm{xx}}+I_{\mathrm{yy}}-I_{\mathrm{zz}} \over m}}
\rho = \frac{3}{4} {m \over \pi abc}.\!

Rotational equilibrium

Artist's conception of Haumea, a scalene dwarf planet, with its two moons

Scalene ellipsoids and cuboids rotate stably along their major or minor axes, but not along their median axis. This can be seen experimentally by throwing an eraser with some spin. In addition, moment of inertia considerations mean that rotation along the major axis is more easily perturbed than rotation along the minor axis. One practical effect of this is that scalene astronomical bodies such as Haumea generally rotate along their minor axes (as does the Earth, which is merely oblate); in addition, because of tidal locking, scalene moons in synchronous orbit such as Mimas orbit with their major axis aligned radially to their planet.

A relaxed ellipsoid, that is, one in hydrostatic equilibrium, has an oblateness a − c directly proportional to its mean density and mean radius. Ellipsoids with a differentiated interior—that is, a denser core than mantle—have a lower oblateness than a homogeneous body. Over all, the ratio (b–c)/(a−c) is approximately 0.25, though this drops for rapidly rotating bodies.[3]

Fluid properties

The ellipsoid is the most general shape for which it has been possible to calculate the creeping flow of fluid around the solid shape. The calculations include the force required to translate through a fluid and to rotate within it. Applications include determining the size and shape of large molecules, the sinking rate of small particles, and the swimming abilities of microorganisms.[4]

Linear transformations

An invertible linear transformation applied to a sphere produces an ellipsoid, which can be brought into the above standard form by a suitable rotation, a consequence of the polar decomposition (also, see spectral theorem). If the linear transformation is represented by a symmetric 3-by-3 matrix, then the eigenvectors of the matrix are orthogonal (due to the spectral theorem) and represent the directions of the axes of the ellipsoid: the lengths of the semiaxes are given by the eigenvalues. The singular value decomposition and polar decomposition are matrix decompositions closely related to these geometric observations.

The intersection of an ellipsoid with a plane is either empty, a single point, or an ellipse (including a circle).

One can also define ellipsoids in higher dimensions, as the images of spheres under invertible linear transformations. The spectral theorem can again be used to obtain a standard equation akin to the one given above.

Egg shape


The shape of a chicken egg is approximately that of half each a prolate and a roughly spherical (potentially even minorly oblate) ellipsoid joined at the equator, sharing a principal axis of rotational symmetry.[5] Although the term egg-shaped usually implies a lack of reflection symmetry across the equatorial plane, it may also refer to true prolate ellipsoids. It can also be used to describe the 2D figure that, revolved around its major axis, produces one of the 3D surfaces described above. See also oval.

See also


  1. ^ OED, "triaxial": Helmert infers ... that the earth is a triaxial ellipsoid.
  2. ^ Thomsen's formulas by Gerard P. Michon (2004-05-13).
  3. ^ "Shapes of the Saturnian Icy Satellites". http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2006/pdf/1639.pdf. 
  4. ^ Dusenbery, David B. (2009). Living at Micro Scale, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. ISBN 978-0-674-03116-6.
  5. ^ Egg Curves by Jürgen Köller.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Ellipsoid — El*lip soid, n. [Ellipse + oid: cf. F. ellipsoide.] (Geom.) A solid, all plane sections of which are ellipses or circles. See {Conoid}, n., 2 (a) . [1913 Webster] Note: The ellipsoid has three principal plane sections, a, b, and c, each at right… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Ellipsoid — El*lip soid, Ellipsoidal El lip*soi dal, a. Pertaining to, or shaped like, an ellipsoid; as, ellipsoid or ellipsoidal form …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Ellipsoïd — (griech., »ellipsenähnlich«), eine geschlossene krumme Fläche, ungefähr wie die Oberfläche eines Eies, wird folgendermaßen erhalten: man denke sich von einem Punkt O (s. Figur), dem Mittelpunkt, ausgehend drei gerade, zueinander senkrechte Linien …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • ellipsoid — [e΄lip soid′ le lip′soid΄, ilip′soid] n. [Fr ellipsoïde: see ELLIPSE & OID] Geom. 1. a solid formed by rotating an ellipse around either axis: its plane sections are all ellipses or circles 2. the surface of such a solid adj. of or shaped like an …   English World dictionary

  • Ellipsŏid — (v. gr.), allgemeinere Bedeutung von Späroid, ein Körper, in welchem nicht, wie im Sphäroid, 2 Achsen gleich sind …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Ellipsoid — Ellipsoid, s. Flächen zweiten Grades und Erde …   Lexikon der gesamten Technik

  • Ellipsoid — Ellipsoīd, eine krumme Oberfläche zweiter Ordnung, deren Durchschnitte mittels einer Ebene durch eine Symmetrieachse Ellipsen oder (beim Rotations E. oder elliptischen Sphäroid) zum Teil auch Kreise bilden …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • ellipsoid — 1721 (n.); 1861 (adj.); see ELLIPSE (Cf. ellipse) + OID (Cf. oid) …   Etymology dictionary

  • Ellipsoid — Triaxiales Ellipsoid mit (a,b,c) = (4,2,1) Ein Ellipsoid ist die drei oder mehrdimensionale Entsprechung einer Ellipse. Bekannte Beispiele sind die Erde und der Rugbyball als Rotationsellipsoid. Inhaltsverzeichnis …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • ellipsoid — /i lip soyd/, n. 1. Geom. a solid figure all plane sections of which are ellipses or circles. Typical equation: (x2/a2) + (y2/b2) + (z2/c2) = 1. adj. 2. ellipsoidal. [1715 25; < F ellipsoïde. See ELLIPSE, OID] * * * ▪ geometry       closed… …   Universalium

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