# 4. The Parabola

## Why study the parabola?

The parabola has many applications in situations where:

### On this page...

Definition of a parabola

Formula of a parabola

Arch Bridges

Horizontal Axis

Shifting the Vertex

Applications

- Radiation needs to be concentrated at one point (e.g. radio telescopes, pay TV dishes, solar radiation collectors) or
- Radiation needs to be transmitted from a single point into a wide parallel beam (e.g. headlight reflectors).

Here is an animation showing how parallel radio waves are collected by a parabolic antenna.

## Definition of a Parabola

The **parabola** is defined as the **locus** of a point which
moves so that it is always the same distance from a fixed point
(called the **focus**) and a given line (called the
**directrix**).

[The word **locus** means the set of points satisfying a given condition.
See some background in Distance from a Point to a Line.]

In the following graph,

- The
**focus**of the parabola is at `(0, p)`. - The
**directrix**is the line `y = -p`. - The
**focal distance**is `|p|` (Distance from the origin to the focus, and from the origin to the directrix. We take absolute value because distance is positive.) - The
**point**(*x*,*y*) represents any point on the curve. - The
**distance***d*from any point (*x*,*y*) to the focus `(0, p)` is the same as the distance from (*x*,*y*) to the directrix.

## The Formula for a Parabola - Vertical Axis

Adding to our diagram from above, we see that the distance `d = y + p`.

Now, using the Distance Formula on the general points `(0, p)` and `(x, y)`, and equating it to our value `d = y + p`, we have

`sqrt((x-0)^2+(y-p)^2)=y+p`

Squaring both sides gives:

(

x− 0)^{2}+ (y−p)^{2}= (y+p)^{2}

Simplifying gives us the** formula for a parabola**:

x^{2}= 4py

In more familiar form, with "*y *= " on the left, we can write this as:

`y=x^2/(4p)`

where *p* is the **focal distance** of the parabola.

Now let's see what "the locus of points equidistant from a point to a line" means.

Each of the colour-coded line segments is the same length in this spider-like graph:

Don't miss Interactive Parabola Graphs, where you can explore concepts like focus, directrix and vertex.

### Example - Parabola with Vertical Axis

### Need Graph Paper?

Sketch the parabola

`y=x^2/2`

Find the **focal length** and indicate the **focus** and the **directrix** on your graph.

## Arch Bridges − Almost Parabolic

The Gladesville Bridge in Sydney, Australia was the longest single span concrete arched bridge in the world when it was constructed in 1964.

The shape of the arch is almost parabolic, as you can see in this image with a superimposed graph of *y *=* −x*^{2} (The negative means the legs of the parabola face downwards.)

[Actually, such bridges are normally in the shape of a **catenary**, but that is beyond the scope of this chapter. See Is the Gateway Arch a Parabola?]

## Parabolas with Horizontal Axis

We can also have the situation where the axis of the parabola is horizontal:

In this case, we have the *relation:*

y^{2}= 4px

[In a **relation**, there are two or more values of *y* for each value of *x*. On the other hand, a **function** only has one value of *y* for each value of *x*.]

### Example - Parabola with Horizontal Axis

Sketch the curve and find the equation of the
parabola with focus (-2,0) and directrix *x* =
2.

## Shifting the Vertex of a Parabola from the Origin

This is a similar concept to the case when we shifted the centre of a circle from the origin.

To shift the vertex of a parabola from (0, 0) to (*h*,
*k*), each *x* in the equation becomes (*x* − *h*) and each *y* becomes (*y* − *k*)*.*

So if the axis of a parabola is **vertical**, and the
vertex is at (*h*, *k*), we have

(

x−h)^{2}= 4p(y−k)

If the axis of a parabola is **horizontal**, and the vertex
is at (*h*, *k*), the equation becomes

(

y−k)^{2}= 4p(x−h)

### Exercises

1. Sketch `x^2= 14y`

2. Find the equation of the parabola having
vertex (0,0), axis along the *x*-axis and
passing through (2,-1).

3.
We found above that the equation of the parabola with vertex (*h*,* k*) and axis parallel to the
*y*-axis is

`(x − h)^2= 4p(y − k)`.

Sketch the parabola for which `(h, k)` is ` (-1,2)` and `p= -3`.

## Helpful article and graph interactives

See also: How to draw *y*^2 = *x* − 2?, which has an extensive explanation of how to manipulate parabola graphs, depending on the formula given.

Also, don't miss Interactive Parabola Graphs, where you can explore parabolas by moving them around and changing parameters.

## Applications of Parabolas

### Application 1 - Antennas

A parabolic antenna has a cross-section of width 12 m and depth of 2 m. Where should the receiver be placed for best reception?

### Application 2 - Projectiles

A golf ball is dropped and a regular strobe light illustrates its motion as follows...

We observe that it is a **parabola**. (Well, very
close).

What is the equation of the parabola that the golf ball is tracing out?

### Conic section: Parabola

All of the graphs in this chapter are examples of **conic sections**. This means we can obtain each shape by slicing a cone at different angles.

How can we obtain a **parabola** from slicing a cone?

We start with a **double cone** (2 right circular cones placed apex to apex):

If we slice a cone parallel to the slant edge of the cone, the resulting shape is a parabola, as shown.

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