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# 1 Space curves

1.1 Representations
A space curve is described by:
1.
_
1(r, j, .) = 0
G(r, j, .) = 0
(as the intersection of two surfaces) or
2.
_
_
_
r = r(t)
j = j(t)
. = .(t)
, t [a, /] R (parametric representation), which is also
met in vectorial variant:
O' = r(t) = r(t)i + j(t)

, + .(t)

/.,
where O' is the position vector of the arbitrary point ' of the curve.
A point '(r
0
, j
0
, .
0
) of a curve (C) is called regular if the involved func-
tions 1, G, r(t), j(t), .(t) are dierentiable (and continuous) in ' and
1. in implicit representation, the Jacobian of 1 and G does not vanish at
'(r
0
, j
0
, .
0
) :

1
0
x
1
0
y
1
0
z
G
0
x
G
0
y
G
0
z

,= 0 at (r
0
, j
0
, .
0
);
2. in parametric representation 3), the derivatives
dr
dt
(t
0
),
dj
dt
(t
0
) and
d.
dt
(t
0
)
do not simultaneously vanish, where t
0
is the value of the parameter t
corresponding to '(r
0
, j
0
, .
0
).
An arc of a curve which consists only of regular points is called a regular
arc. If at a point ', the functions which describe the curve are dierentiable
of a certain class j _ 1, we say that the curve is of class j at that point.
In the neighborhood of a regular point one can always pass between the
representations 1) and 2).
1.2 Arc length of a space curve
Let (C) be given in parametric representation
r(t) = r(t)i + j(t)

, + .(t)

/
and
_
1 denote a regular arc of (C), corresponding to t [t
A
, t
B
].
The length of the arc
_
1 is dened in the same way as for plane curves, this
is, as the limiting case of the length of a polygonal line with : sides inscribed
in
_
1, chosen such that the length of its greatest side tends to 0, when : tends
to innity. If
_
1 is a regular arc, then it can be shown that its arc length is
well dened (=it uniquely exists).
1
Theorem 1 if the arc
_
1 of (C) is parametrically represented by
_
_
_
r = r(t)
j = j (t)
. = .(t)
t [t
A
, t
B
] , (1)
then its length is
1 _
AB
=
t
B
_
t
A
_
_ r
2
(t) + _ j
2
(t) + _ .
2
(t)dt, (2)
where the dots denote derivatives w.r.t. t :
_ r =
dr
dt
, _ j =
dj
dt
, _ . =
d.
dt
.
In dierentials, we have dr = _ rdt, dj = _ jdt, d. = _ .dt, hence, the formula
of the arc length can be also written as
1 _
AB
=
t
B
_
t
A
_
dr
2
+ dj
2
+ d.
2
.
The integrand
d: =
_
_ r
2
(t) + _ j
2
(t) + _ .
2
(t)dt =
_
dr
2
+ dj
2
+ d.
2
is called the element of arc length of the curve (C). With this notation, the
length of the arc
_
1 is expressed as:
1 _
AB
=
_
_
AB
d:.
The function : =
t
_
t0
d: (which measures the length of the curve between some
starting point t
0
and the current point t) can be used as a parameter on the
curve, called the natural parameter.
The element of arc length d: =
_
dr
2
+ dj
2
+ d.
2
measures the length of
a small (innitesimal) arc of the curve, which, in theory, is approximated with
the length of a line segment.
1.3 The TNB Frame (The Frenet Frame)
The TNB-frame (also known as the Frenet Frame), was discovered by Jean
Frederic Frenet (1816-1900). It is an orthonormal frame, moving along the curve.
The initials "TNB" come from the vectors which constitute the frame, namely:
the unit tangent vector t, the unit normal vector (or, more rigorously, the
unit principal normal vector) i, and the unit binormal vector

,.
2
Let us describe in the following, the faces and the edges of this frame. To
this aim, let us recall some basic things about lines and planes in space:
- a line can be uniquely dened by a point '(r
0
, j
0
, .
0
) and a direction
(|, :, :), this way:
(|i:c) :
r r
0
|
=
j j
0
:
=
. .
0
:
.
- the plane which passes through the point '(r
0
, j
0
, .
0
) and has as normal
direction

= (|, :, :), has the equation:
(j|a:c) : |(r r
0
) + :(j j
0
) + :(. .
0
) = 0.
Let (C) be a curve of class at least 2, given in parametric representation:
r(t) = r(t)i + j(t)

, + .(t)

/,
and let '(r
0
, j
0
, .
0
) be a regular point of the curve, corresponding to the value
t
0
of the parameter.
The tangent line (tq) and the normal plane (
N
) :
The tangent line at '(t = t
0
) has as directing vector, the tangent vector
(velocity vector, derivative vector), having as Cartesian coordinates,
the derivatives at t
0
of the "trajectory" coordinates r, j, . :

r(t
0
) = _ r(t
0
)i + _ j(t
0
)

, + _ .(t
0
)

/. (3)
Shortly, if we omit the argument t
0
, we can write:

r( _ r, _ j, _ .). Since ' is
a regular point, the tangent vector at ' exists and does not vanish. The
equations of the tangent line are:
(tq) :
r r
0
_ r(t
0
)
=
j j
0
_ j(t
0
)
=
. .
0
_ .(t
0
)
The normal plane (
N
) is dened as the plane through ', which is
perpendicular to the tangent line. Hence, its equation is:
(
N
) : _ r(t
0
)(r r
0
) + _ j(t
0
) (j j
0
) + _ .(t
0
) (. .
0
) = 0.
The binormal line (/) and the osculating plane (
Osc
):
Let us suppose that at the point ', there exists the second derivative

r(t
0
) = r(t
0
)i + j(t
0
)

, + .(t
0
)

/,
(the acceleration vector) and the cross product

r(t
0
)

r(t
0
) does not
vanish, this is, the velocity vector

r(t
0
) and the acceleration vector

r(t
0
)
are nonvanishing and non-collinear. Then, the two vectors, together with
3
the point ', dene a plane, called the osculating plane of (C) at '.
The vector

/(t
0
) =

r(t
0
)

r(t
0
), (4)
which is actually, the normal vector of the osculating plane, is called the
binormal vector of (C) at '. Let us suppose that, after computing
the cross product, we get for

/(t
0
) the coordinates

/(|, :, :). Then, the
binormal line has the equations:
(/) :
r r
0
|
=
j j
0
:
=
. .
0
:
.
The osculating plane is dened by:
(
Osc
) : |(r r
0
) + :(j j
0
) + :(. .
0
) = 0.
The (principal) normal line (:
p
) and the rectifying plane (
R
) :
The normal line (or the principal normal line) of the curve is dened
as the intersection between the normal plane (
N
) and the osculating plane
(
Osc)
. This is, it is perpendicular to both the tangent vector and to the
binormal one. Hence, the principal normal vector :
p
can be obtained as
the cross product of the two vectors:
:
p
=

/(t
0
)

r(t
0
), (5)
which is,
:
p
=
_

r(t
0
)

r(t
0
)
_

r(t
0
). (6)
This choice of the order

/(t
0
)

r(t
0

r(t
0
)

/(t
0
)) insures
that the vectors

r, :
p
and

/ constitute a right-handed system at ' (the
orientation of

/ can be obtained by the right hand rule from those of

r
and :
p
).
Consequently, if, by performing computations, we are led to
:
p
(, 1, C),
then, the equations of the principal normal line are
(:
p
) :
r r
0

=
j j
0
1
=
. .
0
C
,
while the rectifying plane (which is dened as the plane perpendicular
to :
p
at ') is given by:
(
R
) : (r r
0
) + 1(j j
0
) + C(. .
0
) = 0.
4
the TNB (Frenet) frame
By (3), (4) and (5)-(6), we get
Theorem 2 The unit vectors of the TNB frame at the point '(t = t
0
) are:
the unit tangent vector t =

r(t
0
)
_
_
_

r(t
0
)
_
_
_
;
the unit (principal) normal vector i =
_

r(t
0
)

r(t
0
)
_

r(t
0
)
_
_
_
_

r(t
0
)

r(t
0
)
_

r(t
0
)
_
_
_
;
the unit binormal vector

, =

r(t
0
)

r(t
0
)
_
_
_

r(t
0
)

r(t
0
)
_
_
_
Example: Find the unit vectors of the TNB (Frenet) frame of the curve
(C) : r(t) = c
t
i + c
t

, + t
2
/ at the point '(1, 1, 0).
The point ' has the Cartesian coordinates r = 1, j = 1, . = 0, hence
r
0
= 1 = c
t0
j
0
= 1 = c
t0
.
0
= 0 = t
2
0
.
5
All three relations above yield for ' the value t
0
= 0.
Further, let us calculate the derivatives of the position vector r at ' :

r(t
0
) = (c
t
i c
t

, + 2t

/)[
t0=0
= i

r(t
0
) = (c
t
i + c
t

, + 2

/)[
t0=0
= i +

, + 2

/.
This is,

r(1, 1, 0),

r(1, 1, 2). The unit tangent vector is t =

r(t
0
)
_
_
_

r(t
0
)
_
_
_
= t(
1
_
2
,
1
_
2
, 0).
In order to calculate the unit binormal vector, we need

/ =

r(t
0
)

r(t
0
) =

i

,

/
1 1 0
1 1 2

= 2i 2

, + 2

/.
Then,

, =

/
_
_
/
_
_
=

,(
1
_
3
,
1
_
3
,
1
_
3
).
The principal normal vector is :
p
=

/

r, this is,
:
p
=

i

,

/
2 2 2
1 1 0

= 2i + 2

, + 4

/.
Its unit vector is i =
:
p
| :
p
|
= i(
1
_
6
,
1
_
6
,
2
_
6
).
Exercise 3 Determine the equations of the axes and of the faces of the Frenet
frame for the following curves:
1. r(t) = cos t i + sint

, + t

/ at (t
0
=

2
).
2. r(t) = ti + t
2

, + lnt

/ at '(1, 1, 0).
1.4 Curvature and torsion
Let now (C) : r(t) = r(t)i + j(t)

, + .(t)

## / be a curve of class at least 3, and

'(t = t
0
) a regular point with

r

## r ,= 0 (this is, such that the TNB frame

exists at ').
The curvature of (C) at the point '(t = t
0
) is a number which measures
the "deviation" of the curve from its tangent line in a neighborhood of '. It is
given by:
1(t
0
) =
_
_
_

r
_
_
_
_
_
_

r
_
_
_
3
[
t0
.
A point at which the curvature vanishes (this is,

r

r = 0) is called an
inection point of the curve. At inection points, there is no TNB frame.
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(!) Do not confound this formula with that of the curvature of
a plane curve! The curvature of a space curve, as dened above, is always
nonnegative. On the contrary, for plane curves, the curvature can have a minus
sign.
Proposition 4 For straight lines, the curvature is 0 at each point.(a straight
line consists only of inection points). Conversely, if the curvature of a curve
is 0 at each point, then the curve is a straight line.
This is easy to see, if we take into account that a straight line is described
parametrically by:
r = r
0
+ |t, j = j
0
+ :t, . = .
0
+ :t,
where r
0
, j
0
, .
0
, |, :, : are constants. Then, we get

r(|, :, :),

r =

0, which
leads to 1 = 0.
The torsion of the space curve (C) at a regular point '(t = t
0
) is a
number which indicates how much the curves deviates from a plane (namely,
from the osculating plane at ') in a neighborhood of '. It is given by the
formula:
(t
0
) =
_

r ,

r ,

r
_
_
_
_

r
_
_
_
2
[
t0
.
Proposition 5 For plane curves, the torsion is identically 0. Conversely, if
the torsion identically vanishes, then the curve is contained in a plane.
A space curve which is contained in no plane is called a skew curve.
The sign of the torsion provides information about the side of the osculating
plane in which the curve "bends" around '. Namely:
if 0 at ', then, in a neighborhood of ', the curve "bends" on the
side indicated by the binormal vector

/;
if < 0 at ', then, in a neighborhood of ', the curve "bends" on the
opposite side of

/;
if changes the sign at ', then the curve "pierces" the osculating plane
at '.
Exercise 6 Calculate the curvature and the torsion of the curve (C) : r(t) =
c
t
i + c
t

, + t
2
/ at point '(1, 1, 0).
Exercise 7 Find the curvature and the torsion of the curve (C) : r(t) =
a cos ti + a sint

, + /t

## / (where a, / R are constants) at an arbitrary point.

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Exercise 8 Show that for plane curves (C) : r(t) = r(t)i + j(t)

, + 0

/ (in the
plane rOj), the formula of the curvature of a space curve 1
space
=
_
_
_

r
_
_
_
_
_
_

r
_
_
_
3
[
t0
gives the absolute value of the curvature of (C) computed by the "plane" formula
1
plane
=
_ r j r _ j
[ _ r
2
+ _ j
2
[
3=2
.
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