Great-circle navigation or orthodromic navigation (related to orthodromic course; from the Greek ορθóς, right angle, and δρóμος, path) is the practice of navigating a vessel (a ship or aircraft) along a great circle. Such routes yield the shortest distance between two points on the globe.[1]

The great circle path may be found using spherical trigonometry; this is the spherical version of the inverse geodesic problem. If a navigator begins at P1 = (φ11) and plans to travel the great circle to a point at point P2 = (φ22) (see Fig. 1, φ is the latitude, positive northward, and λ is the longitude, positive eastward), the initial and final courses α1 and α2 are given by formulas for solving a spherical triangle

where λ12 = λ2 − λ1[note 1] and the quadrants of α12 are determined by the signs of the numerator and denominator in the tangent formulas (e.g., using the atan2 function). The central angle between the two points, σ12, is given by

(The numerator of this formula contains the quantities that were used to determine tanα1.) The distance along the great circle will then be s12 = Rσ12, where R is the assumed radius of the earth and σ12 is expressed in radians. Using the mean earth radius, R = R1 ≈ 6,371 km (3,959 mi) yields results for the distance s12 which are within 1% of the geodesic distance for the WGS84 ellipsoid.

To find the way-points, that is the positions of selected points on the great circle between P1 and P2, we first extrapolate the great circle back to its node A, the point at which the great circle crosses the equator in the northward direction: let the longitude of this point be λ0 — see Fig 1. The azimuth at this point, α0, is given by

Let the angular distances along the great circle from A to P1 and P2 be σ01 and σ02 respectively. Then using Napier's rules we have

Figure 2. The great circle path between a node (an equator crossing) and an arbitrary point (φ,λ).

Finally, calculate the position and azimuth at an arbitrary point, P (see Fig. 2), by the spherical version of the direct geodesic problem.[note 5] Napier's rules give

The atan2 function should be used to determine σ01, λ, and α. For example, to find the midpoint of the path, substitute σ = ​1201 + σ02); alternatively to find the point a distance d from the starting point, take σ = σ01 + d/R. Likewise, the vertex, the point on the great circle with greatest latitude, is found by substituting σ = +​12π. It may be convenient to parameterize the route in terms of the longitude using

These formulas apply to a spherical model of the earth. They are also used in solving for the great circle on the auxiliary sphere which is a device for finding the shortest path, or geodesic, on an ellipsoid of revolution; see the article on geodesics on an ellipsoid.

Compute the great circle route from Valparaíso, φ1 = −33°, λ1 = −71.6°, to Shanghai, φ2 = 31.4°, λ2 = 121.8°.

The formulas for course and distance give λ12 = −166.6°,[note 8] α1 = −94.41°, α2 = −78.42°, and σ12 = 168.56°. Taking the earth radius to be R = 6371 km, the distance is s12 = 18743 km.

To compute points along the route, first find α0 = −56.74°, σ1 = −96.76°, σ2 = 71.8°, λ01 = 98.07°, and λ0 = −169.67°. Then to compute the midpoint of the route (for example), take σ = ​121 + σ2) = −12.48°, and solve for φ = −6.81°, λ = −159.18°, and α = −57.36°.

If the geodesic is computed accurately on the WGS84 ellipsoid,[4] the results are α1 = −94.82°, α2 = −78.29°, and s12 = 18752 km. The midpoint of the geodesic is φ = −7.07°, λ = −159.31°, α = −57.45°.

A straight line drawn on a gnomonic chart would be a great circle track. When this is transferred to a Mercator chart, it becomes a curve. The positions are transferred at a convenient interval of longitude and this is plotted on the Mercator chart.