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A molecular cloud, sometimes called a stellar nursery (if star formation is occurring within), is a type of interstellar cloud, the density and size of which permit the formation of molecules, most commonly molecular hydrogen (H2).
What is a molecular cloud?
A molecular cloud is in contrast to other areas of the interstellar medium that contain predominantly ionized gas. Molecular hydrogen is difficult to detect by infrared and radio observations, so the molecule most often used to determine the presence of H2 is carbon monoxide (CO). The ratio between CO luminosity and H2 mass is thought to be constant, although there are reasons to doubt this assumption in observations of some other galaxies.
Within molecular clouds are regions with higher density, where lots of dust and gas cores reside, called clumps. These clumps are the beginning of star formation, if gravity can overcome the high density and force the dust and gas to collapse.
Within the Milky Way, molecular gas clouds account for less than one percent of the volume of the interstellar medium (ISM), yet it is also the densest part of the medium, comprising roughly half of the total gas mass interior to the Sun’s galactic orbit. The bulk of the molecular gas is contained in a ring between 3.5 and 7.5 kiloparsecs (11,000 and 24,000 light-years) from the center of the Milky Way (the Sun is about 8.5 kiloparsecs from the center).
Large scale CO maps of the galaxy show that the position of this gas correlates with the spiral arms of the galaxy. That molecular gas occurs predominantly in the spiral arms suggests that molecular clouds must form and dissociate on a timescale shorter than 10 million years—the time it takes for material to pass through the arm region.
The formation of stars occurs exclusively within molecular clouds. This is a natural consequence of their low temperatures and high densities, because the gravitational force acting to collapse the cloud must exceed the internal pressures that are acting “outward” to prevent a collapse.
There is observed evidence that the large, star-forming clouds are confined to a large degree by their own gravity (like stars, planets, and galaxies) rather than by external pressure. The evidence comes from the fact that the “turbulent” velocities inferred from CO linewidth scale in the same manner as the orbital velocity (a virial relation).
Image: By NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Text: Wikipedia contributors. “Molecular cloud.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 Jun. 2017. Web. 23 Aug. 2017.