Does a cloud (essentially a nebula) have to turn into a star or can it directly become a neutron star/black hole? I might've read somewhere that some primordial black holes might have formed this way, currently am looking for a link.

Does the radiation pressure always have to be strong enough to stop the gravitational collapse?

If a cloud hypothetically could collapse into one, could someone point me to the right direction in calculating the mass range of this cloud?

I've tried looking into simulations but I think that is completely out of question because of the complexity involved (in terms of the density and number of particles).


2 Answers 2


In the present day universe gas clouds cannot collapse directly to black holes. The main reason for this is that gas enriched by metals from previous generations of star can cool effectively and this leads to fragmentation of a collapsing gas cloud.

Let's back up a step and follow the collapse. Instability is governed by the Jeans mass, the smallest mass that is likely to collapse, scales as $T^{3/2}/\rho^{1/2}$, where $T$ is the temperature and $\rho$ the density. If the gas can effectively cool as it collapses, then the temperature remains roughly constant, the Jeans mass falls and the cloud breaks up into smaller cores. These cores usually end up being of stellar size.

The fragmentation ceases because at some point in the collapse, the gas becomes opaque to infrared radiation and the cloud achieves a rough hydrostatic equilibrium. Thermal energy that is lost results in contraction and the centre of the protostar heats up. Your question is essentially asking whether it is possible to get the cloud inside it's Schwarzschild radius before it ignites nuclear fusion? The answer is no.

The Schwarzschild radius is $R_s = 2 GM/c^2$; we can use a form of the virial theorem to work out how hot the centre of the gas cloud would be at this point. $$ \Omega = -3 \int P\ dV,$$ where $\Omega$ is the gravitational potential energy, $P$ is the pressure and the integral is over the volume of the gas cloud. Making the crude assumption (which will only make a difference of a small numerical factor) that the pressure in the cloud is constant, then we rewrite this as $$-\frac{3GM^2}{5R} = -3\frac{P}{\rho}\int dM = -3\frac{PM}{\rho}.$$ Now if we assume an ideal gas with a mean particle mass of $m$, then $$ \frac{GM}{5R} = \frac{\rho k_B T}{\rho m}$$ $$ T = \frac{Gm}{5k_B}\left(\frac{M}{R}\right)$$

Now we can substitute $R=R_s$ and find $$T = \frac{mc^2}{10k_B}$$ In other words, the temperature attained is independent of the mass of the gas cloud and, assuming $m \sim 1.67\times 10^{-27}/2$ kg (for ionised hydrogen atoms), it is $5\times 10^{11}$ K. This is far above the temperature required for the initiation of nuclear fusion, so the collapse can never get to the point of producing a black hole before forming a star.

However, in the early universe, it might be possible for a gas cloud to collapse directly to a supermassive black holes and this may be why quasars exist only a few hundred million years after the big bang.

Primordial gas made of just hydrogen and helium atoms cannot cool very efficiently however, hydrogen molecules can radiate efficiently. The key to direct collapse to a black hole is to prevent the cooling and fragmentation of the gas. This can be achieved if an external source of UV radiation, provided by the first stars, is able to dissociate the the hydrogen molecules. The primordial clouds are then less susceptible to fragmentation because they heat up as they get more dense and the Jeans mass cannot become small. These large clouds are not as dense as a smaller mass cloud as they approach their Schwarzschild radii, so do not become opaque to the radiation they produce and they may be able to collapse directly to large black holes ($10^4$ to $10^5$ solar masses).

See this press release for an alternative summary of this idea and links to recent academic papers on the topic (e.g. Agarawal et al. 2015; Regan et al. 2017; Smith, Bromm & Loeb 2017).

  • $\begingroup$ Are you sure it can't happen? If the gas cloud is really large and is very close to absolute zero and encounters very little friction, won't it undergo very little heating by friction or by adiabatic compression and collapse into a black hole before it even gets hot enough to ignite fusion? $\endgroup$
    – Timothy
    Jul 8, 2018 at 0:35
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    $\begingroup$ @user46757 What do you propose to do with the gravitational potential energy that is released? $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Jul 8, 2018 at 19:24

It is theoretically possible, but for all practical purposes, it is impossible for a low density cloud of interstellar gas to become a black hole without first forming a star.

Wikipedia says that cold "dense" interstellar gas clouds can have as many as $10^6$ atoms per cubic centimeter. That gives us a mass density of approximately $\rho=2\times10^{-18} g/cm^3$. The Schwarzschild radius of a black hole formed from a gas cloud of this density is given by:

$$r=\frac{2GM}{c^2}=\frac{2G}{c^2}\times\frac{4}{3}\pi r^3\rho$$

Solving for r gives:

$$r=\sqrt{\frac{3c^2}{8G\pi \rho}}=30,000\ light\ years$$

This is approximately the distance from the Sun to the center of the Milky Way galaxy. (See WolframAlpha calculation.) If you could magically and instantaneously form this ball of cold dense gas it would immediately be a black hole with that same Schwarzschild radius without first forming stars. Now the mass of that black hole would be the mass of approximately 8000 Milky Way galaxies (see calculation) and that shows why it is impossible!

Any actual "attempt" to create a low density cloud of gas in order to create a black hole directly would instead quickly form many galaxies and stars which would then heat up and expand the gas cloud to a much lower density such that no black hole will form (until these stars go through a supernova to form stellar mass black holes).

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer! (Although I was looking for "collapse" cases only. This gives good insight though ) $\endgroup$ Jun 30, 2017 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ But there is no need to have it instantanously form a black hole, is there? It could also contract more slowly and gather more mass in the process (which is much easier once it gains some density). Of course, the main problem with contraction is temperature. You need to start with nearly absolute zero temperature to ensure thermal energy stays below the fusion point. Even a millionth K will add up... $\endgroup$
    – Zac67
    Jun 30, 2017 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ Emphasis on the word, collapse, exactly. So I'm not really sure this is the answer I'm looking for $\endgroup$ Jun 30, 2017 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ Shouldn't the answer involve something about the nature of hydrogen fusion? Like, the kinetic energy of infall needs to be sufficient that the outward pressure created by the heat generated by fusion is insufficent to overcome it? $\endgroup$ Jun 30, 2017 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ @HritikNarayan: it's a hard question to answer. This answer is an answer ot the question "how large would a gas cloud have to be to be hidden behind an event horizon"? $\endgroup$ Jun 30, 2017 at 19:23

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