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Study Guides > College Algebra

Introduction to Conic Sections in Polar Coordinates

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Identify a conic in polar form.
  • Graph the polar equations of conics.
  • Define conics in terms of a focus and a directrix.
The planets and their orbits around the sun. (Pluto is included.)Figure 1. Planets orbiting the sun follow elliptical paths. (credit: NASA Blueshift, Flickr)
Most of us are familiar with orbital motion, such as the motion of a planet around the sun or an electron around an atomic nucleus. Within the planetary system, orbits of planets, asteroids, and comets around a larger celestial body are often elliptical. Comets, however, may take on a parabolic or hyperbolic orbit instead. And, in reality, the characteristics of the planets’ orbits may vary over time. Each orbit is tied to the location of the celestial body being orbited and the distance and direction of the planet or other object from that body. As a result, we tend to use polar coordinates to represent these orbits. In an elliptical orbit, the periapsis is the point at which the two objects are closest, and the apoapsis is the point at which they are farthest apart. Generally, the velocity of the orbiting body tends to increase as it approaches the periapsis and decrease as it approaches the apoapsis. Some objects reach an escape velocity, which results in an infinite orbit. These bodies exhibit either a parabolic or a hyperbolic orbit about a body; the orbiting body breaks free of the celestial body’s gravitational pull and fires off into space. Each of these orbits can be modeled by a conic section in the polar coordinate system.

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