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). This 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 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).
Within molecular clouds are regions with higher density, where much dust and many gas cores reside, called clumps. These clumps are the beginning of star formation if gravitational forces are sufficient to cause the dust and gas to collapse.
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.
Types of molecular cloud:
Giant molecular clouds (GMC)- are a vast assemblage of molecular gas that has more than 10 thousand times the mass of the Sun. GMCs are around 15 to 600 light-years in diameter (5 to 200 parsecs) and typical masses of 10 thousand to 10 million solar masses. Whereas the average density in the solar vicinity is one particle per cubic centimetre, the average density of a GMC is a hundred to a thousand times as great. Although the Sun is much more dense than a GMC, the volume of a GMC is so great that it contains much more mass than the Sun. The substructure of a GMC is a complex pattern of filaments, sheets, bubbles, and irregular clumps.
Small molecular clouds- Isolated gravitationally-bound small molecular clouds with masses less than a few hundred times that of the Sun are called Bok globules. The densest parts of small molecular clouds are equivalent to the molecular cores found in GMCs and are often included in the same studies.
High-latitude diffuse molecular clouds- In 1984 IRAS identified a new type of diffuse molecular cloud. These were diffuse filamentary clouds that are visible at high galactic latitudes. These clouds have a typical density of 30 particles per cubic centimeter.
The physics of molecular clouds is poorly understood and much debated. Their internal motions are governed by turbulence in a cold, magnetized gas, for which the turbulent motions are highly supersonic but comparable to the speeds of magnetic disturbances.