Spherical coordinates (r, θ, φ) as commonly used in physics (ISO80000-2:2019 convention): radial distance r (distance to origin), polar angle θ (theta) (angle with respect to polar axis), and azimuthal angle φ (phi) (angle of rotation from the initial meridian plane). The symbol ρ (rho) is often used instead of r.
Spherical coordinates (r, θ, φ) as often used in mathematics: radial distance r, azimuthal angle θ, and polar angle φ. The meanings of θ and φ have been swapped compared to the physics convention. As in physics, ρ (rho) is often used instead of r, to avoid confusion with the value r in cylindrical and 2D polar coordinates.
A globe showing the radial distance, polar angle and azimuthal angle of a point P with respect to a unit sphere, in the mathematics convention. In this image, r equals 4/6, θ equals 90°, and φ equals 30°.
The use of symbols and the order of the coordinates differs among sources and disciplines. This article will use the ISO convention frequently encountered in physics: gives the radial distance, polar angle, and azimuthal angle. In many mathematics books, or gives the radial distance, azimuthal angle, and polar angle, switching the meanings of θ and φ. Other conventions are also used, such as r for radius from the z-axis, so great care needs to be taken to check the meaning of the symbols.
According to the conventions of geographical coordinate systems, positions are measured by latitude, longitude, and height (altitude). There are a number of celestial coordinate systems based on different fundamental planes and with different terms for the various coordinates. The spherical coordinate systems used in mathematics normally use radians rather than degrees and measure the azimuthal angle counterclockwise from the x-axis to the y-axis rather than clockwise from north (0°) to east (+90°) like the horizontal coordinate system. The polar angle is often replaced by the elevation angle measured from the reference plane, so that the elevation angle of zero is at the horizon.
The spherical coordinate system generalizes the two-dimensional polar coordinate system. It can also be extended to higher-dimensional spaces and is then referred to as a hyperspherical coordinate system.
To define a spherical coordinate system, one must choose two orthogonal directions, the zenith and the azimuth reference, and an origin point in space. These choices determine a reference plane that contains the origin and is perpendicular to the zenith. The spherical coordinates of a point P are then defined as follows:
Several different conventions exist for representing the three coordinates, and for the order in which they should be written. The use of to denote radial distance, inclination (or elevation), and azimuth, respectively, is common practice in physics, and is specified by ISO standard 80000-2:2019, and earlier in ISO 31-11 (1992).
However, some authors (including mathematicians) use ρ for radial distance, φ for inclination (or elevation) and θ for azimuth, and r for radius from the z-axis, which "provides a logical extension of the usual polar coordinates notation". Some authors may also list the azimuth before the inclination (or elevation). Some combinations of these choices result in a left-handed coordinate system. The standard convention conflicts with the usual notation for two-dimensional polar coordinates and three-dimensional cylindrical coordinates, where θ is often used for the azimuth.
The angles are typically measured in degrees (°) or radians (rad), where 360° = 2π rad. Degrees are most common in geography, astronomy, and engineering, whereas radians are commonly used in mathematics and theoretical physics. The unit for radial distance is usually determined by the context.
When the system is used for physical three-space, it is customary to use positive sign for azimuth angles that are measured in the counter-clockwise sense from the reference direction on the reference plane, as seen from the zenith side of the plane. This convention is used, in particular, for geographical coordinates, where the "zenith" direction is north and positive azimuth (longitude) angles are measured eastwards from some prime meridian.
corresponding local geographical directions (Z, X, Y)
(r, θinc, φaz,right)
(U, S, E)
(r, φaz,right, θel)
(U, E, N)
(r, θel, φaz,right)
(U, N, E)
Note: easting (E), northing (N), upwardness (U). Local azimuth angle would be measured, e.g., counterclockwise from S to E in the case of (U, S, E).
Any spherical coordinate triplet specifies a single point of three-dimensional space. On the other hand, every point has infinitely many equivalent spherical coordinates. One can add or subtract any number of full turns to either angular measure without changing the angles themselves, and therefore without changing the point. It is also convenient, in many contexts, to allow negative radial distances, with the convention that is equivalent to for any r, θ, and φ. Moreover, is equivalent to .
If it is necessary to define a unique set of spherical coordinates for each point, one must restrict their ranges. A common choice is
r ≥ 0,
0° ≤ θ ≤ 180° (π rad),
0° ≤ φ < 360° (2π rad).
However, the azimuth φ is often restricted to the interval(−180°, +180°], or (−π, +π] in radians, instead of [0, 360°). This is the standard convention for geographic longitude.
The range [0°, 180°] for inclination is equivalent to [−90°, +90°] for elevation (latitude).
Even with these restrictions, if θ is 0° or 180° (elevation is 90° or −90°) then the azimuth angle is arbitrary; and if r is zero, both azimuth and inclination/elevation are arbitrary. To make the coordinates unique, one can use the convention that in these cases the arbitrary coordinates are zero.
To plot a dot from its spherical coordinates (r, θ, φ), where θ is inclination, move r units from the origin in the zenith direction, rotate by θ about the origin towards the azimuth reference direction, and rotate by φ about the zenith in the proper direction.
Just as the two-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system is useful on the plane, a two-dimensional spherical coordinate system is useful on the surface of a sphere. In this system, the sphere is taken as a unit sphere, so the radius is unity and can generally be ignored. This simplification can also be very useful when dealing with objects such as rotational matrices.
Spherical coordinates are useful in analyzing systems that have some degree of symmetry about a point, such as volume integrals inside a sphere, the potential energy field surrounding a concentrated mass or charge, or global weather simulation in a planet's atmosphere. A sphere that has the Cartesian equation x2 + y2 + z2 = c2 has the simple equation r = c in spherical coordinates.
Another application is ergonomic design, where r is the arm length of a stationary person and the angles describe the direction of the arm as it reaches out.
The output pattern of an industrial loudspeaker shown using spherical polar plots taken at six frequencies
Three dimensional modeling of loudspeaker output patterns can be used to predict their performance. A number of polar plots are required, taken at a wide selection of frequencies, as the pattern changes greatly with frequency. Polar plots help to show that many loudspeakers tend toward omnidirectionality at lower frequencies.
The spherical coordinate system is also commonly used in 3D game development to rotate the camera around the player's position.
Instead of the radial distance, geographers commonly use altitude above or below some reference surface (vertical datum), which may be the mean sea level. The radial distance r can be computed from the altitude by adding the radius of Earth, which is approximately 6,360 ± 11 km (3,952 ± 7 miles).
However, modern geographical coordinate systems are quite complex, and the positions implied by these simple formulae may be wrong by several kilometers. The precise standard meanings of latitude, longitude and altitude are currently defined by the World Geodetic System (WGS), and take into account the flattening of the Earth at the poles (about 21 km or 13 miles) and many other details.
As the spherical coordinate system is only one of many three-dimensional coordinate systems, there exist equations for converting coordinates between the spherical coordinate system and others.
The spherical coordinates of a point in the ISO convention (i.e. for physics: radiusr, inclinationθ, azimuthφ) can be obtained from its Cartesian coordinates(x, y, z) by the formulae
The inverse tangent denoted in φ = arctan y/x must be suitably defined, taking into account the correct quadrant of (x, y). See the article on atan2.
Alternatively, the conversion can be considered as two sequential rectangular to polar conversions: the first in the Cartesian xy plane from (x, y) to (R, φ), where R is the projection of r onto the xy-plane, and the second in the Cartesian zR-plane from (z, R) to (r, θ). The correct quadrants for φ and θ are implied by the correctness of the planar rectangular to polar conversions.
These formulae assume that the two systems have the same origin, that the spherical reference plane is the Cartesian xy plane, that θ is inclination from the z direction, and that the azimuth angles are measured from the Cartesian x axis (so that the y axis has φ = +90°). If θ measures elevation from the reference plane instead of inclination from the zenith the arccos above becomes an arcsin, and the cos θ and sin θ below become switched.
Conversely, the Cartesian coordinates may be retrieved from the spherical coordinates (radiusr, inclinationθ, azimuthφ), where r ∈ [0, ∞), θ ∈ [0, π], φ ∈ [0, 2π), by
Cylindrical coordinates (axialradiusρ, azimuthφ, elevationz) may be converted into spherical coordinates (central radiusr, inclinationθ, azimuthφ), by the formulas
Conversely, the spherical coordinates may be converted into cylindrical coordinates by the formulae
These formulae assume that the two systems have the same origin and same reference plane, measure the azimuth angle φ in the same senses from the same axis, and that the spherical angle θ is inclination from the cylindrical z axis.
It is also possible to deal with ellipsoids in Cartesian coordinates by using a modified version of the spherical coordinates.
Let P be an ellipsoid specified by the level set
The modified spherical coordinates of a point in P in the ISO convention (i.e. for physics: radiusr, inclinationθ, azimuthφ) can be obtained from its Cartesian coordinates(x, y, z) by the formulae
An infinitesimal volume element is given by
The square-root factor comes from the property of the determinant that allows a constant to be pulled out from a column:
Integration and differentiation in spherical coordinates
Unit vectors in spherical coordinates
The following equations (Iyanaga 1977) assume that the colatitude θ is the inclination from the z (polar) axis (ambiguous since x, y, and z are mutually normal), as in the physics convention discussed.
The line element for an infinitesimal displacement from (r, θ, φ) to (r + dr, θ + dθ, φ + dφ) is
are the local orthogonal unit vectors in the directions of increasing r, θ, and φ, respectively,
and x̂, ŷ, and ẑ are the unit vectors in Cartesian coordinates. The linear transformation to this right-handed coordinate triplet is a rotation matrix,
The general form of the formula to prove the differential line element, is
that is, the change in is decomposed into individual changes corresponding to changes in the individual coordinates.
To apply this to the present case, one needs to calculate how changes with each of the coordinates. In the conventions used,
The desired coefficients are the magnitudes of these vectors:
The surface element spanning from θ to θ + dθ and φ to φ + dφ on a spherical surface at (constant) radius r is then
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