FITS (Flexible Image Transport System) is a standardized data format
is widely used in astronomy. Although originally conceived as simply a
interchange format for digital images, FITS files are now often used as
a working data format, and can be used to store ASCII or binary tabular
in addition to images and spectra. Detailed information on the FITS
format can be obtained from the
FITS Support Office at Goddard Space Flight Center. For
information on processing FITS files with C, rather than
IDL, go to the CFITSIO
Home Page at Goddard Space Flight Center. This site also includes
information on calling CFITSIO from other languages such as C++ and Python.
contains documentation for working with FITS files in Python.
Briefly, a FITS file consists of a sequence of one or
more Header and Data Units (HDUs). A header is composed of ASCII card
images that in IDL is usually read into a string array variable. The
header describes the content of the associated data unit, which might
be a spectrum (IDL vector), an image (IDL array), or tabular data in
ASCII or binary format (often read as an IDL structure). Image and
vector data can be present in any HDU, but tabular data cannot appear
in the first HDU. The HDUs following the first (or primary) HDU are
also known as extensions, and thus a FITS file containing tabular data
must contain at least one extension.
The IDL Astronomy Library contains four different sets
of procedures for reading, writing, and modifying FITS files. The
reason for having four different methods of FITS I/O with IDL is partly
historical, as different groups developed the software independently.
However, each method also has its own strengths and weakness for any
particular task. For example, the procedure MRDFITS()
-- which can read a FITS table into an IDL structure --is the easiest
procedure for analyzing FITS files at the IDL prompt level (provided
that one is comfortable with IDL structures). But mapping a table into
an IDL structure includes extra overhead, so that when performing FITS
I/O at the procedure level, it may be desirable to use more efficient
procedures such as FITS_READ and FTAB_EXT.
The four classes of IDL FITS I/O procedures are briefly
described below, along with the strengths and possible drawbacks of
each method. Note that all methods can read gzip
compressed FITS files.
Besides the four main categories above, other IDL procedures are
miscellaneous operations with FITS files. Once again, there are
duplicate procedures to do (nearly) the same operation.
will read all
standard FITS data types into IDL arrays (for primary images and image
extensions) or structures (for binary or ASCII tables). The procedure MWRFITS() will write an IDL
structure to a
FITS file, with many options available (binary or ASCII table, default
generation of column names). These procedures were written by Tom
(USRA/Goddard). The use of these procedures is described in their
documentation header, with further information
MRDFITS available online.
Strengths: These procedures are easy to
use and remember-- the MRDFITS() procedure can read
of FITS file into a
single IDL structure variable, which is then available for further IDL
processing. MRDFITS() has a long history of
use, and has been tested with many FITS files.
MRDFITS can read Unix, bzip2 and FPACK compressed
files. Options are available to read/write IDL unsigned
data types, and to map variable length binary tables into IDL pointers.
Drawbacks: Mapping an entire FITS table
extension into an IDL structure can incur extra
CPU and virtual memory overhead if one is not interested
in all the columns. The application of TSCAL/TZERO keywords is not
flexible, and the
user must specify all scaling as either floating point or double
The procedures MRDFITS() and MWRFITS
of the following procedures from the IDL Astronomy Library: FXADDPAR , FXPAR(), FXPARPOS() , FXMOVE() , FXPOSIT() , GETTOK() , MRD_HREAD, MRD_SKIP , MRD_STRUCT() , and VALID_NUM()
can be used to read FITS headers and arrays of a specified extensions
IDL variables. Additional procedures in the pro/fits_table directory
are then required to interpret binary and ASCII tables. The FT*
procedures in the /fits_table directory are used to interpret a FITS
ASCII table, and the
TB* procedures are used to interpret a FITS Binary table. The procedure
can be used to write a primary image, ASCII table extension (when used
with the FT* procedures), or image extension.
Strengths: Due to its long history, both READFITS()
and WRITEFITS have undergone extensive testing. For
files that do not contain tables or many image extensions,
READFITS() and WRITEFITS
are as simple and fast as any
other method. READFITS()
can be used to
read Unix, bzip2
and FPACK compressed
currently cannot be used to read variable length binary tables, and WRITEFITS
cannot be used to create any type of binary
table. Interactive use of READFITS() with FITS tables
is somewhat awkward, with the user required to supply (e.g. to FTGET() or TBGET()) a header array and a
data array as separate IDL variables.
READFITS() requires the following supporting
procedures: GETTOK() , MRD_SKIP , STRNUMBER() , SXADDPAR , SXDELPAR , SXPAR() , and VALID_NUM()
WRITEFITS requires the following additional
BREAK_PATH , CHECK_FITS ,
DAYCNV , FIND_WITH_DEF , FXPAR() ,
FXPARPOS() , FXPOSIT , GET_DATE , MRD_HREAD, , MKHDR , and STRN()
- FX* Procedures:
The directory pro/fits_bintable
IDL procedures for FITS I/O originally written by Bill Thompson
(ARC/Goddard) and used by
the SOHO project. This software can be used to read or write all types
FITS images and binary tables. Further information on these procedures
available in the LaTeX file fits_bintable.tex.
In November 1999, C. Markwardt added the procedures FXBWRITM and FXBREADM which can
greatly improve the
speed of the FX* procedures for FITS files without variable length
binary tables, by writing and reading multiple FITS binary columns
in a single call.
Strengths: These are the most complete
and well-tested IDL procedures
for writing binary tables. Extensions can be specified by the EXTNAME
Drawbacks: The FX* procedures do not
handle ASCII tables. The coding is usually more involved than with the
FITS I/O procedures.
- FITS_* and FTAB_* Procedures:
The five procedures FITS_CLOSE, FITS_HELP,
FITS_OPEN, FITS_READ, and FITS_WRITE were
written by D. Lindler
(ACC/Goddard) and are used by the
STIS/NICMOS instrument teams for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Like
READFITS/WRITEFITS, these procedures
require further processing of binary and ASCII tables, by using
in the /fits_table directory.
In particular, the procedure FTAB_EXT
uses FITS_READ to provide a quick and easy extraction
of FITS ASCII or Binary tables into IDL vectors.
Strengths: The FITS_* procedures are the
most efficient way to process FITS files with many extensions. These
are the only IDL procedures
to recognize the
They allow specification
of an extension by the value of the EXTNAME keyword. FITS_READ()
can be used to
and FPACK compressed
Drawbacks: No easy capability for
creating binary tables, or for
reading variable length binary tables. Because the entire FITS file is
always parsed, the procedure can be slow when only one extension is
procedure is slow for gzip'ed FITS files, and FITS files cannot be read
from a Unix
pipe or an
or FITS_HELP: Display
information about FITS file(s) in a directory, including the number of
extensions, and the size and type of each header or array. FITS_HELP
has a nicer format but only does one file at a time.
List selected keywords
from the primary or extension headers of a set of FITS files.
Add or modify a keyword in a FITS header.
or SXPAR(): Return the value of
a keyword in a FITS header.
Read just the FITS header (of a specified extension) into an IDL string
Find a substring in a FITS header or other string array.
A FITS header is a string array with 80 characters per line. On many
terminals, use of the IDL PRINT command to display
will result in a space between every
line. The HPRINT procedure will display a FITS
header without this extra space, and includes options to display only
specified lines of a header.
- MKHDR or FXHMAKE: Create a
header to match a specified data variable
Modify a FITS file by
updating the header and/or data array.
will read an entire FITS file into an IDL
structure. Each header and data array of every extension is placed into
a separate structure tag. Note that individual table columns are not
parsed into separate tags, so that this procedure
is less generally useful than MRDFITS().
Delete a specified
keyword in a FITS header
The procedures FTAB_PRINT, FTAB_HELP, FITS_INFO and FITSDIR
use the non-standard system
variables !TEXTUNIT and
!TEXTOUT. These system variables are automatically added to one's
if they are not present prior to compilation.