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How to Graph a Parabola in a Cartesian Coordinate System

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Ray is a Licensed Engineer in the Philippines. He loves to write any topic about mathematics and civil engineering.

What Is a Parabola?

A parabola is an open plane curve that is created by the junction of a right circular cone with a plane parallel to its side. The set of points in a parabola are equidistant from a fixed line. A parabola is a graphical illustration of a quadratic equation or second-degree equation. Some of the examples representing a parabola are the projectile motion of a body that follows a parabolic curve path, suspension bridges in the shape of a parabola, reflecting telescopes, and antennae. The general forms of a parabola are:

Cy2 + Dx +Ey + F = 0

where C ≠ 0 and D ≠ 0

Ax2 + Dx + Ey + F = 0

where A ≠ 0 and D ≠ 0

Different Forms of Parabolic Equations

The general formula Cy2 + Dx +Ey + F = 0 is a parabolic equation whose vertex is at (h, k) and the curve opens either to the left or right. The two reduced and specific forms of this general formula are:

(y - k)2 = 4a (x - h)

(y - k)2 = - 4a (x - h)

On the other hand, the general formula Ax2 + Dx + Ey + F = 0 is a parabolic equation whose vertex is at (h, k) and the curve opens either upward or downward. The two reduced and specific forms of this general formula are:

(x - h)2 = 4a (y - k)

(x - h)2 = - 4a (y - k)

If the vertex of the parabola is at (0, 0), these general equations have reduced standard forms.

y2 = 4ax

y2 = - 4ax

x2 = 4ay

x2 = - 4ay

Properties of a Parabola

A parabola has six properties.

1. The vertex of a parabola is at the middle of the curve. It can either be at the origin (0, 0) or any other location (h, k) in the Cartesian plane.

2. The concavity of a parabola is the orientation of the parabolic curve. The curve may open either upward or downward, or to the left or right.

3. The focus lies on the axis of symmetry of a parabolic curve. It is a distance 'a' units from the vertex of the parabola.

4. The axis of symmetry is the imaginary line containing the vertex, focus, and the midpoint of the directrix. It is the imaginary line that separates the parabola into two equal sections mirroring each other.

Table 1: Standard Equations of a Parabola

Equation in Standard FormVertexConcavityFocusAxis of Symmetry

y^2 = 4ax

(0, 0)

right

(a , 0)

y = 0

y^2 = -4ax

(0, 0)

left

(-a, 0)

y = 0

(y - k)^2 = 4a (x - h)

(h, k)

right

(h + a, k)

y = k

(y - k)^2 = -4a (x - h)

(h, k)

left

(h - a, k)

y = k

x^2 = 4ay

(0, 0)

upward

(0, a)

x = 0

x^2 = -4ay

(0, 0)

downward

(0, -a)

x = 0

(x - h)^2 = 4a (y - k)

(h, k)

upward

(h, k + a)

x = h

(x - h)^2 = -4a (y - k)

(h, k)

downward

(h, k - a)

x = h

5. The directrix of a parabola is the line that is parallel to both axes. The distance of the directrix from the vertex is 'a' units from the vertex and '2a' units from the focus.

6. Latus rectum is a segment passing through the parabolic curve's focus. The two ends of this segment lie on the parabolic curve (±a, ±2a).

Equation in Standard FormDirectrixEnds of Latus Rectum

y^2 = 4ax

x = -a

(a, 2a) and (a, -2a)

y^2 = -4ax

x = a

(-a, 2a) and (- a, -2a)

(y - k)^2 = 4a (x - h)

x = h - a

(h + a, k + 2a) and (h +a, k - 2a)

(y - k)^2 = -4a (x - h)

x = h + a

(h - a, k + 2a) and (h - a, k - 2a)

x^2 = 4ay

y = -a

(-2a, a) and (2a, a)

x^2 = -4ay

y = a

(-2a, -a) and (2a, -a)

(x - h)^2 = 4a (y - k)

y = k - a

(h - 2a, k + a) and (h + 2a, k + a)

(x - h)^2 = -4a (y - k)

y = k + a

(h - 2a, k - a) and (h + 2a, k - a)

Different Graphs of a Parabola

The focus of a parabola is n units away from the vertex and is directly on the right side or left side if it opens to the right or left. On the other hand, the focus of a parabola is directly above or below the vertex if it opens upward or downward. If the parabola opens to the right or left, the axis of symmetry is either the x-axis or parallel to the x-axis. If the parabola opens upward or downward, the axis of symmetry is either the y-axis or parallel to y-axis. Here are the graphs of all equations of a parabola.

Graph of Different Equations of a Parabola

Graph of Different Equations of a Parabola

Graph of Different Forms of Parabola

Graph of Different Forms of Parabola

Step-by-Step Guide on How to Graph a Parabola

1. Identify the concavity of the parabolic equation. Refer for the directions of the opening of the curve to the given table above. It could be opening to the left or right, or upward or downward.

2. Locate the vertex of the parabola. The vertex can either be (0, 0) or (h, k).

3. Locate the focus of the parabola.

4. Identify the coordinate of the latus rectum.

5. Locate the directrix of the parabolic curve. The location of the directrix is the same distance of the focus from the vertex but in the opposite direction.

6. Graph the parabola by drawing a curve joining the vertex and the coordinates of the latus rectum. Then to finish it, label all the significant points of the parabola.

Problem 1: A Parabola Opening to the Right

Given the parabolic equation, y2 = 12x, determine the following properties and graph the parabola.

a. Concavity (direction in which the graph opens)

b. Vertex

c. Focus

d. Latus rectum coordinates

e. The line of symmetry

f. Directrix

Solution
The equation y2 = 12x is in the reduced form y2 = 4ax where a = 3.

a. The concavity of the parabolic curve is opening to the right since the equation is in the form y2 = 4ax.

b. The vertex of the parabola with a form y2 = 4ax is at (0, 0).

c. The focus of a parabola in the form y2 = 4ax is at (a, 0). Since 4a is equal to 12, the value of a is 3. Therefore, the focus of the parabolic curve with equation y2 = 12x is at (3, 0). Count 3 units to the right.

d. The latus rectum coordinates of the equation y2 = 4ax is at (a, 2a) and (a, -2a). Since the segment contains the focus and is parallel to the y-axis, we add or subtract 2a from the y-axis. Therefore, the latus rectum coordinates are (3, 6) and (3, -6).

e. Since the parabola's vertex is at (0, 0) and is opening to the right, the line of symmetry is y = 0.

f. Since the value of a = 3 and the graph of the parabola opens to the right, the directrix is at x = -3.

How to Graph a Parabola: Graph of a Parabola Opening to the Right in Cartesian Coordinate System

How to Graph a Parabola: Graph of a Parabola Opening to the Right in Cartesian Coordinate System

Problem 2: A Parabola Opening to the Left

Given the parabolic equation, y2 = - 8x, determine the following properties and graph the parabola.

a. Concavity (direction in which the graph opens)

b. Vertex

c. Focus

d. Latus rectum coordinates

e. The line of symmetry

f. Directrix

Solution
The equation y2 = - 8x is in the reduced form y2 = - 4ax where a = 2.

a. The concavity of the parabolic curve is opening to the left since the equation is in the form y2 = - 4ax.

b. The vertex of the parabola with a form y2 = - 4ax is at (0, 0).

c. The focus of a parabola in the form y2 = - 4ax is at (-a, 0). Since 4a is equal to 8, the value of a is 2. Therefore, the focus of the parabolic curve with equation y2 = - 8x is at (-2, 0). Count 2 units to the left.

d. The latus rectum coordinates of the equation y2 = - 4ax is at (-a, 2a) and (-a, -2a). Since the segment contains the focus and is parallel to the y-axis, we add or subtract 2a from the y-axis. Therefore, the latus rectum coordinates are (-2, 4) and (-2, -4).

e. Since the parabola's vertex is at (0, 0) and is opening to the left, the line of symmetry is y = 0.

f. Since the value of a = 2 and the graph of the parabola opens to the left, the directrix is at x = 2.

How to Graph a Parabola: Graph of a Parabola Opening to the Left in Cartesian Coordinate System

How to Graph a Parabola: Graph of a Parabola Opening to the Left in Cartesian Coordinate System

Problem 3: A Parabola Opening Upward

Given the parabolic equation x2 = 16y, determine the following properties and graph the parabola.

a. Concavity (direction in which the graph opens)

b. Vertex

c. Focus

d. Latus rectum coordinates

e. The line of symmetry

f. Directrix

Solution
The equation x2 = 16y is in the reduced form x2 = 4ay where a = 4.

a. The concavity of the parabolic curve is opening upward since the equation is in the form x2 = 4ay.

b. The vertex of the parabola with a form x2 = 4ay is at (0, 0).

c. The focus of a parabola in the form x2 = 4ay is at (0, a). Since 4a is equal to 16, the value of a is 4. Therefore, the focus of the parabolic curve with equation x2 = 4ay is at (0, 4). Count 4 units upward.

d. The latus rectum coordinates of the equation x2 = 4ay is at (-2a, a) and (2a, a). Since the segment contains the focus and is parallel to the x-axis, we add or subtract a from the x-axis. Therefore, the latus rectum coordinates are (-16, 4) and (16, 4).

e. Since the parabola's vertex is at (0, 0) and is opening upward, the line of symmetry is x = 0.

f. Since the value of a = 4 and the graph of the parabola opens upward, the directrix is at y = -4.

How to Graph a Parabola: Graph of a Parabola Opening Upward in Cartesian Coordinate System

How to Graph a Parabola: Graph of a Parabola Opening Upward in Cartesian Coordinate System

Problem 4: A Parabola Opening Downward

Given the parabolic equation (x - 3)2 = - 12(y + 2), determine the following properties and graph the parabola.

a. Concavity (direction in which the graph opens)

b. Vertex

c. Focus

d. Latus rectum coordinates

e. The line of symmetry

f. Directrix

Solution
The equation (x - 3)2 = - 12(y + 2) is in the reduced form (x - h)2 = - 4a (y - k) where a = 3.

a. The concavity of the parabolic curve is opening downward since the equation is in the form (x - h)2 = - 4a (y - k).

b. The vertex of the parabola with a form (x - h)2 = - 4a (y - k) is at (h, k). Therefore, the vertex is at (3, -2).

c. The focus of a parabola in the form (x - h)2 = - 4a (y - k) is at (h, k-a). Since 4a is equal to 12, the value of a is 3. Therefore, the focus of the parabolic curve with equation (x - h)2 = - 4a (y - k) is at (3, -5). Count 5 units downward.

d. The latus rectum coordinates of the equation (x - h)2 = - 4a (y - k) is at (h - 2a, k - a) and (h + 2a, k - a) Therefore, the latus rectum coordinates are (-3, -5) and (9, 5).

e. Since the parabola's vertex is at (3, -2) and is opening downward, the line of symmetry is x = 3.

f. Since the value of a = 3 and the graph of the parabola opens downward, the directrix is at y = 1.

How to Graph a Parabola: Graph of a Parabola Opening Downward in Cartesian Coordinate System

How to Graph a Parabola: Graph of a Parabola Opening Downward in Cartesian Coordinate System

Learn How to Graph Other Conic Sections

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Which software can I use to graph a parabola?

Answer: You can easily search for parabola generators online. Some popular online sites for that are Mathway, Symbolab, Mathwarehouse, Desmos, etc.

© 2018 Ray

Comments

Ray (author) from Philippines on June 30, 2018:

I hope you and your boy are enjoying. Graphing parabolas are easy given you are knowledgeable of the different properties and familiar with the equations.The tables provided would be a great help. Thank you again, Sir Eric!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on June 30, 2018:

Very interesting. I am just going to read it and not try to pass a test. Thanks

We are are working on the concepts of graphs.