Initial mass function

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In astronomy, the initial mass function (IMF) is an empirical function that describes the initial distribution of masses for a population of stars. The IMF is an output of the process of star formation. The IMF is often given as a probability distribution function (PDF) for the mass at which a star enters the main sequence (begins hydrogen fusion). The distribution function can then be used to construct the mass distribution (the histogram of stellar masses) of a population of stars. It differs from the present day mass function (PDMF), the current distribution of masses of stars, due to the evolution and death of stars which occurs at different rates for different masses as well as dynamical mixing in some populations.

The properties and evolution of a star are closely related to its mass, so the IMF is an important diagnostic tool for astronomers studying large quantities of stars. For example, the initial mass of a star is the primary factor determining its colour, luminosity, and lifetime. At low masses, the IMF sets the Milky Way Galaxy mass budget and the number of substellar objects that form. At intermediate masses, the IMF controls chemical enrichment of the interstellar medium. At high masses, the IMF sets the number of core collapse supernovae that occur and therefore the kinetic energy feedback.

The IMF is relatively invariant from one group of stars to another, though some observations suggest that the IMF is different in different environments.[1][2][3]

Form of the IMF[edit]

Initial mass function

The IMF is often stated in terms of a series of power laws, where (sometimes also represented as ), the number of stars with masses in the range to within a specified volume of space, is proportional to , where is a dimensionless exponent. The IMF can be inferred from the present day stellar luminosity function by using the stellar mass-luminosity relation together with a model of how the star formation rate varies with time. Commonly used forms of the IMF are the Kroupa (2001) broken power law[4] and the Chabrier (2003) log-normal.[5]

Salpeter (1955)[edit]

The IMF of stars more massive than our sun was first quantified by Edwin Salpeter in 1955.[6] His work favoured an exponent of . This form of the IMF is called the Salpeter function or a Salpeter IMF. It shows that the number of stars in each mass range decreases rapidly with increasing mass. The Salpeter Initial Mass Function is

where is the solar mass, and is a constant relating to the local stellar density.

Miller-Scalo (1979)[edit]

Later authors extended the work below one solar mass (M). Glenn E. Miller and John M. Scalo suggested that the IMF "flattened" (approached ) below one solar mass.[7]

Kroupa (2001)[edit]

Pavel Kroupa kept above half a solar mass, but introduced between 0.08-0.5 M and below 0.08 M.


Chabrier (2003)[edit]

Chabrier 2003 for individual stars:


Chabrier 2003 for stellar systems (e.g. binaries):



The initial mass function is typically graphed on a logarithm scale of log(N) vs log(m). Such plots give approximately straight lines with a slope Γ equal to 1-α. Hence Γ is often called the slope of the initial mass function. The present day mass function, for coeval formation, has the same slope except that it rolls off at higher masses which have evolved away from the main sequence.[8]


There are large uncertainties concerning the substellar region. In particular, the classical assumption of a single IMF covering the whole substellar and stellar mass range is being questioned in favour of a two-component IMF to account for possible different formation modes of substellar objects. I.e. one IMF covering brown dwarfs and very-low-mass stars on the one hand, and another ranging from the higher-mass brown dwarfs to the most massive stars on the other. Note that this leads to an overlap region between about 0.05 and 0.2 M where both formation modes may account for bodies in this mass range.[9]


  1. ^ Conroy, Charlie; van Dokkum, Pieter G. (2012). "The Stellar Initial Mass Function in Early-type Galaxies From Absorption Line Spectroscopy. II. Results". The Astrophysical Journal. 760 (1): 71. arXiv:1205.6473. Bibcode:2012ApJ...760...71C. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/760/1/71.
  2. ^ Kalirai, Jason S.; Anderson, Jay; Dotter, Aaron; Richer, Harvey B.; Fahlman, Gregory G.; Hansen, Brad M.S.; Hurley, Jarrod; Reid, I. Neill; Rich, R. Michael; Shara, Michael M. (2013). "Ultra-Deep Hubble Space Telescope Imaging of the Small Magellanic Cloud: The Initial Mass Function of Stars with M < 1 Msun". The Astrophysical Journal. 763 (2): 110. arXiv:1212.1159. Bibcode:2013ApJ...763..110K. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/763/2/110.
  3. ^ Geha, Marla; Brown, Thomas M.; Tumlinson, Jason; Kalirai, Jason S.; Simon, Joshua D.; Kirby, Evan N.; VandenBerg, Don A.; Muñoz, Ricardo R.; Avila, Roberto J.; Guhathakurta, Puragra; Ferguson, Henry C. (2013). "The Stellar Initial Mass Function of Ultra-faint Dwarf Galaxies: Evidence for IMF Variations with Galactic Environment". The Astrophysical Journal. 771 (1): 29. arXiv:1304.7769. Bibcode:2013ApJ...771...29G. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/771/1/29.
  4. ^ Kroupa, Pavel (2001). "On the variation of the initial mass function". MNRAS. 322 (2): 231–246. arXiv:astro-ph/0009005. Bibcode:2001MNRAS.322..231K. doi:10.1046/j.1365-8711.2001.04022.x.
  5. ^ Chabrier, Gilles (2003). "Galactic stellar and substellar initial mass function". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 115 (809): 763–795. arXiv:astro-ph/0304382. Bibcode:2003PASP..115..763C. doi:10.1086/376392.
  6. ^ Salpeter, Edwin (1955). "The luminosity function and stellar evolution". Astrophysical Journal. 121: 161. Bibcode:1955ApJ...121..161S. doi:10.1086/145971.
  7. ^ Miller, Glenn; Scalo, John (1979). "The initial mass function and stellar birthrate in the solar neighborhood". Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. 41: 513. Bibcode:1979ApJS...41..513M. doi:10.1086/190629.
  8. ^ Massey, Philip (1998). "The Initial Mass Function of Massive Stars in the Local Group". The Stellar Initial Mass Function (38Th Herstmonceux Conference). 142: 17. Bibcode:1998ASPC..142...17M.
  9. ^ Kroupa, Pavel; et al. (2012). "The stellar and sub-stellar IMF of simple and composite populations". Stellar Systems and Galactic Structure, Vol. V. arXiv:1112.3340. doi:10.1007/978-94-007-5612-0_4.

Further reading[edit]