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Not to be confused with polytope.

In astrophysics, a polytrope refers to a solution of the Lane–Emden equation in which the pressure depends upon the density in the form

P = K \rho^{(n+1)/n},

where P is pressure, ρ is density and K is a constant. The constant n is known as the polytropic index. This relation need not be interpreted as an equation of state, although a gas following such an equation of state does produce a polytropic solution to the Lane–Emden equation. Rather, this is simply a relation that expresses an assumption about the change of pressure with radius in terms of the change of density with radius, yielding a solution to the Lane–Emden equation.

Sometimes the word polytrope may be used to refer to an equation of state that looks similar to the thermodynamic relation above, although this is potentially confusing and is to be avoided. It is preferable to refer to the fluid itself (as opposed to the solution of the Lane–Emden equation) as a polytropic fluid. The equation of state of a polytropic fluid is general enough that such idealized fluids find wide use outside of the limited problem of polytropes.

Example models by polytropic index[edit]

Density (normalized to average density) versus radius (normalized to external radius) for a polytrope with index n=3.
  • Neutron stars are well modeled by polytropes with index about in the range between n = 0.5 and n = 1.
  • A polytrope with index n = 5 has an infinite radius. It corresponds to the simplest plausible model of a self-consistent stellar system, first studied by A. Schuster in 1883.
  • A polytrope with index n = ∞ corresponds to what is called an isothermal sphere, that is an isothermal self-gravitating sphere of gas, whose structure is identical to the structure of a collisionless system of stars like a globular cluster.

In general as the polytropic index increases, the density distribution is more heavily weighted toward the center (r = 0) of the body.


  • Chandrasekhar, S. [ 1939 ] ( 1958 ). An Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure, New York : Dover. ISBN 0-486-60413-6
  • Hansen, C.J., Kawaler S.D. & Trimble V. ( 2004 ). Stellar Interiors - Physical Principles, Structure, and Evolution, New York : Springer. ISBN 0-387-20089-4
  • Horedt, G.P. ( 2004 ). Polytropes. Applications in Astrophysics and Related Fields, Dordrecht : Kluwer. ISBN 1-4020-2350-2