In geodesy, a reference ellipsoid is a mathematically defined surface that approximates the geoid, the truer figure of the Earth, or other planetary body. Because of their relative simplicity, reference ellipsoids are used as a preferred surface on which geodetic network computations are performed and point coordinates such as latitude, longitude, and elevation are defined.
In 1687 Isaac Newton published the Principia in which he included a proof[not in citation given] that a rotating self-gravitating fluid body in equilibrium takes the form of an oblate ellipsoid of revolution which he termed an oblate spheroid. Current practice uses the word 'ellipsoid' alone in preference to the full term 'oblate ellipsoid of revolution' or the older term 'oblate spheroid'. In the rare instances (some asteroids and planets) where a more general ellipsoid shape is required as a model the term used is triaxial (or scalene) ellipsoid. A great many ellipsoids have been used with various sizes and centres but modern (post-GPS) ellipsoids are centred at the actual center of mass of the Earth or body being modeled.
The shape of an (oblate) ellipsoid (of revolution) is determined by the shape parameters of that ellipse which generates the ellipsoid when it is rotated about its minor axis. The semi-major axis of the ellipse, a, is identified as the equatorial radius of the ellipsoid: the semi-minor axis of the ellipse, b, is identified with the polar distances (from the centre). These two lengths completely specify the shape of the ellipsoid but in practice geodesy publications classify reference ellipsoids by giving the semi-major axis and the inverse flattening, 1/, The flattening, f, is simply a measure of how much the symmetry axis is compressed relative to the equatorial radius:
For the Earth, f is around 1/ corresponding to a difference of the major and minor semi-axes of approximately 21 km (13 miles). Some precise values are given in the table below and also in Figure of the Earth. For comparison, Earth's Moon is even less elliptical, with a flattening of less than 1/, while Jupiter is visibly oblate at about 1/ and one of Saturn's triaxial moons, Telesto, is nearly 1/ to 1/.
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A primary use of reference ellipsoids is to serve as a basis for a coordinate system of latitude (north/south), longitude (east/west), and elevation (height). For this purpose it is necessary to identify a zero meridian, which for Earth is usually the Prime Meridian. For other bodies a fixed surface feature is usually referenced, which for Mars is the meridian passing through the crater Airy-0. It is possible for many different coordinate systems to be defined upon the same reference ellipsoid.
The longitude measures the rotational angle between the zero meridian and the measured point. By convention for the Earth, Moon, and Sun it is expressed in degrees ranging from −180° to +180° For other bodies a range of 0° to 360° is used.
The latitude measures how close to the poles or equator a point is along a meridian, and is represented as an angle from −90° to +90°, where 0° is the equator. The common or geodetic latitude is the angle between the equatorial plane and a line that is normal to the reference ellipsoid. Depending on the flattening, it may be slightly different from the geocentric (geographic) latitude, which is the angle between the equatorial plane and a line from the center of the ellipsoid. For non-Earth bodies the terms planetographic and planetocentric are used instead.
The coordinates of a geodetic point are customarily stated as geodetic latitude and longitude, i.e., the direction in space of the geodetic normal containing the point, and the height h of the point over the reference ellipsoid. See geodetic system for more detail. If these coordinates, i.e., latitude ϕ, longitude λ and height h, are given, one can compute the geocentric rectangular coordinates of the point as follows:
In contrast, extracting φ, λ and h from the rectangular coordinates usually requires iteration. A straightforward method is given in an OSGB publication and also in web notes. More sophisticated methods are outlined in geodetic system.
Historical Earth ellipsoids
Currently the most common reference ellipsoid used, and that used in the context of the Global Positioning System, is the one defined by WGS 84.
Traditional reference ellipsoids or geodetic datums are defined regionally and therefore non-geocentric, e.g., ED50. Modern geodetic datums are established with the aid of GPS and will therefore be geocentric, e.g., WGS 84.
Ellipsoids for other planetary bodies
Reference ellipsoids are also useful for geodetic mapping of other planetary bodies including planets, their satellites, asteroids and comet nuclei. Some well observed bodies such as the Moon and Mars now have quite precise reference ellipsoids.
For rigid-surface nearly-spherical bodies, which includes all the rocky planets and many moons, ellipsoids are defined in terms of the axis of rotation and the mean surface height excluding any atmosphere. Mars is actually egg shaped, where its north and south polar radii differ by approximately 6 km (4 miles), however this difference is small enough that the average polar radius is used to define its ellipsoid. The Earth's Moon is effectively spherical, having almost no bulge at its equator. Where possible a fixed observable surface feature is used when defining a reference meridian.
For gaseous planets like Jupiter, an effective surface for an ellipsoid is chosen as the equal-pressure boundary of one bar. Since they have no permanent observable features the choices of prime meridians are made according to mathematical rules.
Small moons, asteroids, and comet nuclei frequently have irregular shapes. For some of these, such as Jupiter's Io, a scalene (triaxial) ellipsoid is a better fit than the oblate spheroid. For highly irregular bodies the concept of a reference ellipsoid may have no useful value, so sometimes a spherical reference is used instead and points identified by planetocentric latitude and longitude. Even that can be problematic for non-convex bodies, such as Eros, in that latitude and longitude don't always uniquely identify a single surface location.
- Isaac Newton:Principia Book III Proposition XIX Problem III, p. 407 in Andrew Motte translation, available on line at 
- Torge, W (2001) Geodesy (3rd edition), published by de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-017072-8
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- OpenGIS Implementation Specification for Geographic information - Simple feature access - Part 1: Common architecture, Annex B.4. 2005-11-30
- Web address: http://www.opengeospatial.org