The three coordinate surfaces of prolate spheroidal coordinates. The red prolate spheroid (stretched sphere) corresponds to μ = 1, and the blue two-sheet hyperboloid corresponds to ν = 45°. The yellow half-plane corresponds to φ = −60°, which is measured relative to the x-axis (highlighted in green). The black sphere represents the intersection point of the three surfaces, which has Cartesian coordinates of roughly (0.831, −1.439, 2.182).
Prolate spheroidal coordinates can be used to solve various partial differential equations in which the boundary conditions match its symmetry and shape, such as solving for a field produced by two centers, which are taken as the foci on the z-axis. One example is solving for the wavefunction of an electron moving in the electromagnetic field of two positively charged nuclei, as in the hydrogen molecular ion, H2+. Another example is solving for the electric field generated by two small electrode tips. Other limiting cases include areas generated by a line segment (μ = 0) or a line with a missing segment (ν=0).
Prolate spheroidal coordinates μ and ν for a = 1. The lines of equal values of μ and ν are shown on the xz-plane, i.e. for φ = 0. The surfaces of constant μ and ν are obtained by rotation about the z-axis, so that the diagram is valid for any plane containing the z-axis: i.e. for any φ.
The most common definition of prolate spheroidal coordinates is
where is a nonnegative real number and . The azimuthal angle belongs to the interval .
The trigonometric identity
shows that surfaces of constant form prolatespheroids, since they are ellipses rotated about the axis joining their foci. Similarly, the hyperbolic trigonometric identity
shows that surfaces of constant form hyperboloids of revolution.
In principle, a definition of prolate spheroidal coordinates could be degenerate. In other words, a single set of coordinates might correspond to two points in Cartesian coordinates; this is illustrated here with two black spheres, one on each sheet of the hyperboloid and located at (x, y, ±z). However, neither of the definitions presented here are degenerate.
An alternative and geometrically intuitive set of prolate spheroidal coordinates are sometimes used, where and . Hence, the curves of constant are prolate spheroids, whereas the curves of constant are hyperboloids of revolution. The coordinate belongs to the interval [−1, 1], whereas the coordinate must be greater than or equal to one.
The coordinates and have a simple relation to the distances to the foci and . For any point in the plane, the sum of its distances to the foci equals , whereas their difference equals . Thus, the distance to is , whereas the distance to is . (Recall that and are located at and , respectively.) This gives the following expressions for , , and :
The scale factors for the alternative elliptic coordinates are
while the azimuthal scale factor is now
Hence, the infinitesimal volume element becomes
and the Laplacian equals
Other differential operators such as and can be expressed in the coordinates by substituting the scale factors into the general formulae found in orthogonal coordinates.
As is the case with spherical coordinates, Laplace's equation may be solved by the method of separation of variables to yield solutions in the form of prolate spheroidal harmonics, which are convenient to use when boundary conditions are defined on a surface with a constant prolate spheroidal coordinate (See Smythe, 1968).
Korn GA, Korn TM (1961). Mathematical Handbook for Scientists and Engineers. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 177. LCCN59014456. Korn and Korn use the (μ, ν, φ) coordinates, but also introduce the degenerate (σ, τ, φ) coordinates.
Margenau H, Murphy GM (1956). The Mathematics of Physics and Chemistry. New York: D. van Nostrand. pp. 180–182. LCCN55010911. Similar to Korn and Korn (1961), but uses colatitude θ = 90° - ν instead of latitude ν.
Moon PH, Spencer DE (1988). "Prolate Spheroidal Coordinates (η, θ, ψ)". Field Theory Handbook, Including Coordinate Systems, Differential Equations, and Their Solutions (corrected 2nd ed., 3rd print ed.). New York: Springer Verlag. pp. 28–30 (Table 1.06). ISBN0-387-02732-7. Moon and Spencer use the colatitude convention θ = 90° − ν, and rename φ as ψ.
Landau LD, Lifshitz EM, Pitaevskii LP (1984). Electrodynamics of Continuous Media (Volume 8 of the Course of Theoretical Physics) (2nd ed.). New York: Pergamon Press. pp. 19–29. ISBN978-0-7506-2634-7. Treats the prolate spheroidal coordinates as a limiting case of the general ellipsoidal coordinates. Uses (ξ, η, ζ) coordinates that have the units of distance squared.