Great Circles

In plane geometry, lines have two important characteristics. A line represents the shortest path between two points, and the slope of such a line is constant. When describing lines on the surface of a spheroid, however, only one of these characteristics can be guaranteed at a time.

A great circle is the shortest path between two points along the surface of a sphere. The precise definition of a great circle is the intersection of the surface with a plane passing through the center of the planet. Thus, great circles always bisect the sphere. The equator and all meridians are great circles. All great circles other than these do not have a constant azimuth, the spherical analog of slope; they cross successive meridians at different angles. That great circles are the shortest path between points is not always apparent from maps, because very few map projections (the Gnomonic is one of them) represent arbitrary great circles as straight lines.

Because they define paths that minimize distance between two (or three) points, great circles are examples of geodesics. In general, a geodesic is the straightest possible path constrained to lie on a curved surface, independent of the choice of a coordinate system. The term comes from the Greek geo-, earth, plus daiesthai, to divide, which is also the root word of geodesy, the science of describing the size and shape of the Earth mathematically.

For more information, see Generate Vector Data for Points Along Great Circle or Rhumb Line Tracks.