The CO-to-H2 Conversion Factor
CO line emission represents the most accessible and widely used tracer of the molecular interstellar medium. This renders the translation of observed CO intensity into total H2 gas mass critical to understand star formation and the interstellar medium in our Galaxy and beyond. We review the theoretical underpinning, techniques, and results of efforts to estimate this CO-to-H2 "conversion factor," Xco, in different environments. In the Milky Way disk, we recommend a conversion factor Xco = 2x10^20 cm^-2/(K km/s)^-1 with +/-30% uncertainty. Studies of other "normal galaxies" return similar values in Milky Way-like disks, but with greater scatter and systematic uncertainty. Departures from this Galactic conversion factor are both observed and expected. Dust-based determinations, theoretical arguments, and scaling relations all suggest that Xco increases with decreasing metallicity, turning up sharply below metallicity ~1/3-1/2 solar in a manner consistent with model predictions that identify shielding as a key parameter. Based on spectral line modeling and dust observations, Xco appears to drop in the central, bright regions of some but not all galaxies, often coincident with regions of bright CO emission and high stellar surface density. This lower Xco is also present in the overwhelmingly molecular interstellar medium of starburst galaxies, where several lines of evidence point to a lower CO-to-H2 conversion factor. At high redshift, direct evidence regarding the conversion factor remains scarce; we review what is known based on dynamical modeling and other arguments.