The Chandrasekhar Limit: Understanding Stellar Stability

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The Chandrasekhar Limit: Understanding Stellar Stability

The universe is a theater of dramatic events, where stars are the main actors. Among the celestial phenomena that capture our imagination, the death of stars shines brightly, quite literally in some instances. One concept that plays a vital role in this stellar saga is the Chandrasekhar Limit. Understanding this limit offers a gateway into the lifecycles of stars, their ultimate fate, and the breathtaking events that follow.

What is the Chandrasekhar Limit?

The Chandrasekhar Limit, named after the Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, defines the maximum mass that a white dwarf star can have before it collapses under its own gravity. This critical mass is approximately 1.4 times the mass of our Sun (solar masses).

The significance of this limit lies in stellar stability. A white dwarf with a mass below the Chandrasekhar Limit can exist in a state of stability, supported against gravitational collapse by electron degeneracy pressure. However, a white dwarf exceeding this limit succumbs to gravitational forces, resulting in either a supernova explosion or the formation of a neutron star or black hole.

The Science Behind the Limit

To appreciate how the Chandrasekhar Limit works, we need to understand two critical forces:

When a star has a mass less than 1.4 solar masses, the electron degeneracy pressure is sufficient to counterbalance the gravitational forces, maintaining the star in a stable state. Conversely, if the mass exceeds this limit, the electron degeneracy pressure is overwhelmed, leading to a collapse.

Real-World Implications and Examples

Let's consider some real-world examples to better grasp the implications of the Chandrasekhar Limit:

Stable White Dwarfs

Our Sun is expected to end its life in about 5 billion years, shedding its outer layers and leaving behind a white dwarf. Given that its mass is below the Chandrasekhar Limit, the resulting white dwarf will remain stable for billions of years.

Explosive Supernovae

Stars initially more massive than the Sun often end their lives in spectacular supernovae. For instance, when a white dwarf in a binary system accretes mass from its companion star, it can exceed the Chandrasekhar Limit. This triggers a Type Ia supernova, a runaway thermonuclear explosion that briefly outshines entire galaxies.

Chandrasekhar's Legacy

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar's discovery of this mass limit earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983. His work laid the foundation for modern astrophysics, providing profound insights into stellar evolution, supernovae, and the formation of exotic objects like black holes and neutron stars.

FAQs About the Chandrasekhar Limit

What is the numerical value of the Chandrasekhar Limit?

The Chandrasekhar Limit is approximately 1.4 solar masses.

Why is the Chandrasekhar Limit important?

The Chandrasekhar Limit determines the fate of white dwarfs and is pivotal in understanding stellar evolution, supernova explosions, and the formation of neutron stars and black holes.

Can a white dwarf exceed the Chandrasekhar Limit?

Yes, a white dwarf can exceed the Chandrasekhar Limit by accreting mass from a companion star. This often results in a Type Ia supernova explosion.


The Chandrasekhar Limit serves as a celestial threshold, dictating whether a star maintains stability as a white dwarf or meets its explosive end as a supernova. This fascinating concept underscores the delicate balance of forces at play in the cosmos, reminding us of the complex yet beautiful nature of our universe.

Tags: Astronomy, Stellar Physics, Astrophysics