hyperbola path of spacecraft

Did you know that the orbit of a spacecraft can sometimes be a hyperbola?

A spacecraft can use the gravity of a planet to alter its path and propel it at high speed away from the planet and back out into space using a technique called "gravitational slingshot".

If this happens, then the path of the spacecraft is a hyperbola.

(Play with this at Gravity Freeplay)


A hyperbola is two curves that are like infinite bows.

Looking at just one of the curves:

any point P is closer to F than to G by some constant amount

The other curve is a mirror image, and is closer to G than to F.

hyperbola distances

In other words, the distance from P to F is always less than the distance P to G by some constant amount. (And for the other curve P to G is always less than P to F by that constant amount.)

As a formula:

|PF − PG| = constant

Each bow is called a branch and F and G are each called a focus.

Have a try yourself:

Try moving point P: what do you notice about the lengths PF and PG ?

Also try putting point P on the other branch.

There are some other interesting things, too:

hyperbola foci etc

On the diagram you can see:

And, strictly speaking, there is also another axis of symmetry that goes down the middle and separates the two branches of the hyperbola.

Conic Section

You can also get a hyperbola when you slice through a double cone.

The slice must be steeper than that for a parabola, but does not
have to be parallel to the cone's axis for the hyperbola to be symmetrical.

So the hyperbola is a conic section (a section of a cone).

  conic section hyperbola


By placing a hyperbola on an x-y graph (centered over the x-axis and y-axis), the equation of the curve is:

x2a2y2b2 = 1

hyperbola on xy graph


One vertex is at (a, 0), and the other is at (−a, 0)

The asymptotes are the straight lines:

(Note: the equation is similar to the equation of the ellipse: x2/a2 + y2/b2 = 1, except for a "−" instead of a "+")


Any branch of a hyperbola can also be defined as a curve where the distances of any point from:

hyperbola focus directrix

This ratio is called the eccentricity, and for a hyperbola it is always greater than 1.

The eccentricity (usually shown as the letter e) shows how "uncurvy" (varying from being a circle) the hyperbola is.

hyperbola with points N P F

On this diagram:

The eccentricity is the ratio PF/PN, and has the formula:

e = √(a2+b2)a

Using "a" and "b" from the diagram above.

Latus Rectum

hyperbola latus rectum

The Latus Rectum is the line through the focus and parallel to the directrix.

The length of the Latus Rectum is 2b2/a.


Reciprocal function
The reciprocal function y = 1/x is a hyperbola!