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5.11: Law of Cosines

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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While helping your mom bake one day, the two of you get an unusual idea. You want to cut the cake into pieces, and then frost over the surface of each piece. You start by cutting out a slice of the cake, but you don't quite cut the slice correctly. It ends up being an oblique triangle, with a 5 inch side, a 6 inch side, and an angle of 70 between the sides you measured. Can you help your mom determine the length of the third side, so she can figure out how much frosting to put out?

Law of Cosines

The Law of Cosines is a fantastic extension of the Pythagorean Theorem to oblique triangles. In this Concept, we show some interesting ways to utilize this formula to analyze real world situations.






Solve using Law of Cosines

In a game of pool, a player must put the eight ball into the bottom left pocket of the table. Currently, the eight ball is 6.8 feet away from the bottom left pocket. However, due to the position of the cue ball, she must bank the shot off of the right side bumper. If the eight ball is 2.1 feet away from the spot on the bumper she needs to hit and forms a 168 angle with the pocket and the spot on the bumper, at what angle does the ball need to leave the bumper?

Note: This is actually a trick shot performed by spinning the eight ball, and the eight ball will not actually travel in straight-line trajectories. However, to simplify the problem, assume that it travels in straight lines.

In the scenario above, we have the SAS case, which means that we need to use the Law of Cosines to begin solving this problem. The Law of Cosines will allow us to find the distance from the spot on the bumper to the pocket (y). Once we know y, we can use the Law of Sines to find the angle (X).

y2y2y=6.82+2.122(6.8)(2.1)cos168=78.59=8.86 feet

The distance from the spot on the bumper to the pocket is 8.86 feet. We can now use this distance and the Law of Sines to find angle X. Since we are finding an angle, we are faced with the SSA case, which means we could have no solution, one solution, or two solutions. However, since we know all three sides this problem will yield only one solution.


In the previous example, we looked at how we can use the Law of Sines and the Law of Cosines together to solve a problem involving the SSA case. In this section, we will look at situations where we can use not only the Law of Sines and the Law of Cosines, but also the Pythagorean Theorem and trigonometric ratios. We will also look at another real-world application involving the SSA case.

Solve using Law of Cosines

Three scientists are out setting up equipment to gather data on a local mountain. Person 1 is 131.5 yards away from Person 2, who is 67.8 yards away from Person 3. Person 1 is 72.6 yards away from the mountain. The mountains forms a 103 angle with Person 1 and Person 3, while Person 2 forms a 92.7 angle with Person 1 and Person 3. Find the angle formed by Person 3 with Person 1 and the mountain.

In the triangle formed by the three people, we know two sides and the included angle (SAS). We can use the Law of Cosines to find the remaining side of this triangle, which we will call x. Once we know x, we will two sides and the non-included angle (SSA) in the triangle formed by Person 1, Person 2, and the mountain. We will then be able to use the Law of Sines to calculate the angle formed by Person 3 with Person 1 and the mountain, which we will refer to as Y.

To find x:

x2x2x=131.52+67.822(131.5)(67.8)cos92.7=22729.06397=150.8 yds

Now that we know x=150.8, we can use the Law of Sines to find Y. Since this is the SSA case, we need to check to see if we will have no solution, one solution, or two solutions. Since 150.8>72.6, we know that we will have only one solution to this problem.


Solve using Law of Cosines

Katie is constructing a kite shaped like a triangle.

She knows that the lengths of the sides are a = 13 inches, b = 20 inches, and c = 19 inches. What is the measure of the angle between sides "a" and "b"?

Since she knows the length of each of the sides of the triangle, she can use the Law of Cosines to find the angle desired:



Example 1

Earlier, you were asked to determine the length of the third side. 

You can use the Law of Cosines to help your mom find out the length of the third side on the piece of cake:


The piece of cake is just a little over 9 inches long.

Example 2

You are cutting a triangle out for school that looks like this:

Find side c (which is the side opposite the 14 angle) and B (which is the angle opposite the side that has a length of 14).

You know that two of the sides have lengths of 11 and 14 inches, and that the angle between them is 14. You can use this to find the length of the third side:


And with this you can use the Law of Sines to solve for the unknown angle:


Example 3

While hiking one day you walk for 2 miles in one direction. You then turn 110 to the left and walk for 3 more miles. Your path looks like this:

When you turn to the left again to complete the triangle that is your hiking path for the day, how far will you have to walk to complete the third side? What angle should you turn before you start walking back home?

Since you know the lengths of two of the legs of the triangle, along with the angle between them, you can use the Law of Cosines to find out how far you'll have to walk along the third leg:


Now you have enough information to solve for the interior angle of the triangle that is supplementary to the angle you need to turn:


The angle 48.25 is the interior angle of the triangle. So you should turn 90+(9048.25)=90+41.75=131.75 to the left before starting home.

Example 4

A support at a construction site is being used to hold up a board so that it makes a triangle, like this:

If the angle between the support and the ground is 17, the length of the support is 2.5 meters, and the distance between where the board touches the ground and the bottom of the support is 3 meters, how far along the board is the support touching? What is the angle between the board and the ground?

You should use the Law of Cosines first to solve for the distance from the ground to where the support meets the board:


And now you can use the Law of Sines:



In ABC, a=12, b=15, and c=20.

  1. Find mA.
  2. Find mB.
  3. Find mC.

In DEF, d=25, e=13, and f=16.

  1. Find mD.
  2. Find mE.
  3. Find mF.

In KBP, k=19, B=61, and p=12.

  1. Find the length of b.
  2. Find mK.
  3. Find mP.
  4. While hiking one day you walk for 5 miles due east, then turn to the left and walk 3 more miles 30 west of north. At this point you want to return home. How far are you from home if you were to walk in a straight line?
  5. A parallelogram has sides of 20 and 31 ft, and an angle of 46. Find the length of the longer diagonal of the parallelogram.
  6. Dirk wants to find the length of a long building from one side (point A) to the other (point B). He stands outside of the building (at point C), where he is 500 ft from point A and 220 ft from point B. The angle at C is 94. Find the length of the building.

Determine whether or not each triangle is possible.

  1. a=12, b=15, c=10
  2. a=1, b=5, c=4
  3. \begin{align*}\angle A=32^\circ\end{align*}, a=8, b=10

Review (Answers)

To see the Review answers, open this PDF file and look for section 5.11. 


Included Angle

Included Angle

The included angle in a triangle is the angle between two known sides.
law of cosines

law of cosines

The law of cosines is a rule relating the sides of a triangle to the cosine of one of its angles. The law of cosines states that c^2=a^2+b^2-2ab\cos C, where C is the angle across from side c.


SAS means side, angle, side, and refers to the fact that two sides and the included angle of a triangle are known.


SSS means side, side, side and refers to the fact that all three sides of a triangle are known in a problem.

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade
Date Created:
Sep 26, 2012
Last Modified:
Mar 23, 2016
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