If (x, y) is a point on the unit circle in the first quadrant, then x and y are the lengths of the legs of a right triangle whose hypotenuse has length 1. Thus, by the Pythagorean theorem, x and y satisfy the equation
Since x2 = (−x)2 for all x, and since the reflection of any point on the unit circle about the x- or y-axis is also on the unit circle, the above equation holds for all points (x, y) on the unit circle, not just those in the first quadrant.
The trigonometric functions cosine and sine may be defined on the unit circle as follows. If (x, y) is a point of the unit circle, and if the ray from the origin (0, 0) to (x, y) makes an angle t from the positive x-axis, (where counterclockwise turning is positive), then
The equation x2 + y2 = 1 gives the relation
These identities come from the fact that the x- and y-coordinates of a point on the unit circle remain the same after the angle t is increased or decreased by any number of revolutions (1 revolution = 2π radians = 360º).
When working with right triangles, sine, cosine, and other trigonometric functions only make sense for angle measures more than zero and less than π/2. However, using the unit circle, these functions have sensible, intuitive meanings for any real-valued angle measure.
In fact, not only sine and cosine, but all of the six standard trigonometric functions — sine, cosine, tangent, cotangent, secant, and cosecant, as well as archaic functions like versine and exsecant — can be defined geometrically in terms of a unit circle, as shown at right.