FITSHeaders Build Status Coverage

FITSHeaders is a pure Julia package for managing basic FITS structures such as FITS headers. FITS (for Flexible Image Transport System) is a data file format widely used in astronomy. A FITS file is a concatenation of Header Data Units (HDUs) that consist in a header part and a data part. The header of a HDU is a collection of so-called FITS cards. Each such card is stored in textual form and associates a keyword with a value and/or a comment.

The FITSHeaders package is intended to provide:

  • Methods for fast parsing of a FITS header or of a piece of a FITS header (that is a single FITS header card).

  • An expressive API for creating FITS cards and accessing their components (keyword, value, and comment), possibly, in a type-stable way.

  • Methods for easy and efficient access to the records of a FITS header.

Building FITS cards

A FITS header card associates a keyword (or a name) with a value and a comment (both optional). A FITS header card can be efficiently stored as an instance of FitsCard built by:

card = FitsCard(key => (val, com))

with key the card name, val its value, and com its comment. The value val may be:

  • a boolean to yield a card of type FITS_LOGICAL;
  • an integer to yield a card of type FITS_INTEGER;
  • a non-integer real to yield a card of type FITS_FLOAT;
  • a complex to yield a card of type FITS_COMPLEX;
  • a string to yield a card of type FITS_STRING;
  • nothing to yield a card of type FITS_COMMENT;
  • undef or missing to yield a card of type FITS_UNDEFINED.

The comment may be omitted for a normal FITS card and the value may be omitted for a commentary FITS card:

card = FitsCard(key => val::Number)
card = FitsCard(key => str::AbstractString)

In the 1st case, the comment is assumed to be empty. In the 2nd case, the string str is assumed to be the card comment if key is "COMMENT" or "HISTORY" and the card value otherwise.

Conversely, Pair(card) yields the pair key => (val, com). The convert method is extended by the FITSHeaders package to perform these conversions.

If the string value of a FITS card is too long, it shall be split across several consecutive CONTINUE cards when writing a FITS file. Likewise, if the comment of a commentary keyword ("COMMENT" or "HISTORY") is too long, it shall be split across several consecutive cards with the same keyword when writing a FITS file.

FITS cards properties

FITS cards have the following properties (among others):

card.type     # type of card: FITS_LOGICAL, FITS_INTEGER, etc.
card.key      # quick key of card: Fits"BITPIX", Fits"HIERARCH", etc.     # name of card
card.value    # callable object representing the card value
card.comment  # comment of card
card.units    # units of card value
card.unitless # comment of card without the units part if any

As the values of FITS keywords have different types, card.value does not yield a Julia value but a callable object. Called without any argument, this object yields the actual card value:

card.value() -> val::Union{Bool,Int64,Float64,ComplexF64,String,Nothing,UndefInitializer}

but such a call is not type-stable as indicated by the union Union{...} in the above type assertion. For a type-stable result, the card value can be converted to a given data type T:

convert(T, card.value)

both yield the value of card converted to type T. For readability, T may be an abstract type: card.value(Integer) yields the same result as card.value(Int64), card.value(Real) or card.value(AbstractFloat) yield the same result as card.value(Float64), card.value(Complex) yields the same result as card.value(ComplexF64), and card.value(AbstractString) yields the same result as card.value(String).

To make things easier, a few additional properties are aliases that yield the card value converted to a specific type:

card.logical :: Bool       # alias for card.value(Bool)
card.integer :: Int64      # alias for card.value(Integer)
card.float   :: Float64    # alias for card.value(Real)
card.complex :: ComplexF64 # alias for card.value(Complex)
card.string  :: String     # alias for card.value(String)

When the actual card value is of a different type than the one requested, an error is thrown if the conversion is not possible or inexact.

valtype(card) yields the Julia type of the value of card while isassigned(card) yields whether card has a value (that is whether it is neither a commentary card nor a card with an undefined value).

FITS keywords

There are two kinds of FITS keywords:

  • Short FITS keywords are words with at most 8 ASCII characters from the restricted set of upper case letters (bytes 0x41 to 0x5A), decimal digits (hexadecimal codes 0x30 to 0x39), hyphen (hexadecimal code 0x2D), or underscore (hexadecimal code 0x5F). In a FITS file, keywords shorter than 8 characters are right-padded with ordinary spaces (hexadecimal code 0x20).

  • HIERARCH FITS keywords start with the string "HIERARCH " (with a single trailing space) followed by one or more words composed from the same restricted set of ASCII characters as short keywords and separated by a single space.

Keywords longer than 8 characters or composed of several words can only be represented as HIERARCH FITS keywords. To simplify the representation of FITS cards as pairs, the FitsCard constructor automatically converts long keywords or multi-word keywords into a HIERARCH FITS keyword by prefixing the keyword with the string "HIERARCH " for example:

julia> card = FitsCard("VERY-LONG-NAME" => (2, "keyword is longer than 8 characters"))
FitsCard: HIERARCH VERY-LONG-NAME = 2 / keyword is longer than 8 characters


julia> FitsCard("SOME KEY" => (3, "keyword has 8 characters but 2 words"))
FitsCard: HIERARCH SOME KEY = 3 / keyword has 8 characters but 2 words


This rule is only applied to the construction of FITS cards from pairs. When parsing a FITS header card from a file, the "HIERARCH " prefix must be present.

The non-exported method FITSHeaders.keyword may be used to apply this rule:

julia> FITSHeaders.keyword("VERY-LONG-NAME")

julia> FITSHeaders.keyword("SOME KEY")

julia> FITSHeaders.keyword("NAME")

julia> FITSHeaders.keyword("HIERARCH NAME")

Quick FITS keys

In FITSHeaders, a key of type FitsKey is a 64-bit value computed from a FITS keyword. The key of a short FITS keyword is unique and exactly matches the first 8 bytes of the keyword as it is stored in a FITS file. Thus quick keys provide fast means to compare and search FITS keywords. The constructor FitsKey(name) yields the quick key of the string name. A quick key may be literally expressed by using the @Fits_str macro in Julia code. For example:

card.key == Fits"NAXIS"

is faster than, say == "NAXIS", to check whether the name of the FITS header card card is "NAXIS". This is because, the comparison is performed on a single integer (not on several characters) and expression Fits"...." is a constant computed at compile time with no run-time penalty. Compared to FitsKey(name), Fits"...." checks the validity of the characters composing the literal short keyword (again this is done at compile time so without run-time penalty) and, for readability, does not allow for trailing spaces.

For a HIERARCH keyword, the quick key is equal to the constant Fits"HIERARCH" whatever the other part of the keyword.

Parsing of FITS header cards

Each FITS header card is stored in a FITS file as 80 consecutive bytes from the restricted set of ASCII characters from ' ' to '~' (hexadecimal codes 0x20 to 0x7E). Hence Julia strings (whether they are encoded in ASCII or in UTF8) can be treated as vectors of bytes. The parsing methods provided by the FITSHeaders package exploit this to deal with FITS headers and cards stored as either vectors of bytes (of type AbstractVector{UInt8}) or as Julia strings (of type String or SubString{String}).

A FitsCard object can be built by parsing a FITS header card as it is stored in a FITS file:

card = FitsCard(buf; offset=0)

where buf is either a string or a vector of bytes. Keyword offset can be used to specify the number of bytes to skip at the beginning of buf, so that it is possible to extract a specific FITS header card, not just the first one. At most, the 80 first bytes after the offset are scanned to build the FitsCard object. The next FITS card to parse is then at offset + 80 and so on.

The considered card may be shorter than 80 bytes, the result being exactly the same as if the missing bytes were spaces. If there are no bytes left, a FitsCard object equivalent to the final END card of a FITS header is returned.

FITS headers

The FITSHeaders package provides objects of type FitsHeader to store, possibly partial, FITS headers.

Building a FITS header

To build a FITS header initialized with records args.., call:

hdr = FitsHeader(args...)

where args... is a variable number of records in any form allowed by the FitsCard constructor, it can also be a vector or a tuple of records. For example:

dims = (384, 288)
hdr = FitsHeader("SIMPLE" => true,
                 "BITPIX" => (-32, "32-bit floats"),
                 "NAXIS" => (length(dims), "number of dimensions"),
                 ntuple(i -> "NAXIS$i" => dims[i], length(dims))...,
                 "COMMENT" => "A comment.",
                 "COMMENT" => "Another comment.",
                 "DATE" => ("2023-02-01", "1st of February, 2023"),
                 "COMMENT" => "Yet another comment.")

Method keys can be applied to get the list of keywords in a FITS header:

julia> keys(hdr)
KeySet for a Dict{String, Int64} with 7 entries. Keys:

Retrieving records from a FITS header

A FITS header object behaves as a vector of FitsCard elements with integer or keyword (string) indices. When indexed by keywords, a FITS header object is similar to a dictionary except that the order of records is preserved and that commentary and continuation records (with keywords "COMMENT", "HISTORY", "", or "CONTINUE") may appear more than once.

An integer (linear) index i or a string index key can be used to retrieve a given record:

hdr[i]   # i-th record
hdr[key] # first record whose name matches `key`

For example (with hdr as built above):

julia> hdr[2]
FitsCard: BITPIX  = -32 / 32-bit floats

julia> hdr["NAXIS"]
FitsCard: NAXIS   = 2 / number of dimensions

julia> hdr["COMMENT"]
FitsCard: COMMENT A comment.

Note that, when indexing by name, the first matching record is returned. This may be a concern for non-unique keywords as in the last above example. All matching records can be collected into a vector of FitsCard elements by:

collect(key, hdr) # all records whose name matches `key`

For example:

julia> collect("COMMENT", hdr)
3-element Vector{FitsCard}:
 FitsCard: COMMENT A comment.
 FitsCard: COMMENT Another comment.
 FitsCard: COMMENT Yet another comment.

julia> collect(rec -> startswith(, "NAXIS"), hdr)
3-element Vector{FitsCard}:
 FitsCard: NAXIS   = 2 / number of dimensions
 FitsCard: NAXIS1  = 384
 FitsCard: NAXIS2  = 288

julia> collect(r"^NAXIS[0-9]+$", hdr)
2-element Array{FitsCard,1}:
 FitsCard("NAXIS1" => 384)
 FitsCard("NAXIS2" => 288)

This behavior is different from that of filter which yields another FITS header instance:

julia> filter(rec -> startswith(, "NAXIS"), hdr)
3-element FitsHeader:
 FitsCard: NAXIS   = 2 / number of dimensions
 FitsCard: NAXIS1  = 384
 FitsCard: NAXIS2  = 288

For more control, searching for the index i of an existing record in FITS header object hdr can be done by the usual methods:

findfirst(what, hdr)
findlast(what, hdr)
findnext(what, hdr, start)
findprev(what, hdr, start)

which all return a valid integer index if a record matching what is found and nothing otherwise. The matching pattern what can be a keyword (string), a FITS card (an instance of FitsCard whose name is used as a matching pattern), a regular expression, or a predicate function which takes a FITS card argument and shall return whether it matches. The find methods just yield nothing for any unsupported kind of pattern.

The eachmatch method is a simple mean to iterate over matching records:

eachmatch(what, hdr)

yields an iterator over the records of hdr matching what. For example:

@inbounds for rec in eachmatch(what, hdr)
    ... # do something

is a shortcut for:

i = findfirst(what, hdr)
@inbounds while i !== nothing
    rec = hdr[i]
    ... # do something
    i = findnext(what, hdr, i+1)


@inbounds for rec in reverse(eachmatch(what, hdr))
    ... # do something

is equivalent to:

i = findlast(what, hdr)
@inbounds while i !== nothing
    rec = hdr[i]
    ... # do something
    i = findprev(what, hdr, i-1)

If it is not certain that a record exists or to avoid throwing a KeyError exception, use the get method. For example:

julia> get(hdr, "BITPIX", nothing)
FitsCard: BITPIX  = -32 / 32-bit floats

julia> get(hdr, "GIZMO", missing)

Modifying a FITS header

A record rec may be pushed to a FITS header hdr to modify the header:

push!(hdr, rec)

where rec may have any form allowed by the FitsCard constructor. If the keyword is "COMMENT", "HISTORY", "", or "CONTINUE", rec is appended to the end of the list of records stored by hdr. For other keywords which must be unique, if a record of the same name exists in hdr, it is replaced by rec; otherwise, it is appended to the end of the list of records stored by hdr.

The setindex! method may be used with a keyword (string) index. For example, the two following statements are equivalent:

hdr[key] = (val, com)
push!(hdr, key => (val, com))

The setindex! method may also be used with a linear (integer) index.. For example:

hdr[i] = rec

replaces the i-th record in hdr by rec. With an integer index, the rule for unique / non-unique keywords is not applied, so this indexing should be restricted to editing the value and/or comment of an existing entry. The following example illustrates how this can be used to modify the comment of the BITPIX record:

julia> if (i = findfirst("BITPIX", hdr)) != nothing
           hdr[i] = ("BITPIX" => (hdr[i].value(), "A better comment."))
"BITPIX" => (-32, "A better comment.")


FITSHeaders is ought to be fast. Below are times and memory allocations for parsing 80-byte FITS cards measured with Julia 1.8.5 on a Linux laptop with an Intel Core i7-5500U CPU:

  • parsing logical FITS card: 114.588 ns (2 allocations: 64 bytes)
  • parsing integer FITS card: 118.519 ns (2 allocations: 72 bytes)
  • parsing HIERARCH FITS card: 142.462 ns (2 allocations: 88 bytes)
  • parsing float FITS card: 274.119 ns (4 allocations: 152 bytes)
  • parsing complex FITS card: 424.060 ns (6 allocations: 248 bytes)
  • parsing string FITS card: 155.694 ns (4 allocations: 144 bytes)
  • parsing string with quotes: 169.223 ns (4 allocations: 168 bytes)
  • parsing COMMENT FITS card: 90.615 ns (2 allocations: 112 bytes)
  • parsing HISTORY FITS card: 100.591 ns (2 allocations: 72 bytes)
  • parsing blank FITS card: 78.261 ns (0 allocations: 0 bytes)
  • parsing END FITS card: 82.286 ns (0 allocations: 0 bytes)

The benchmark code is in file test/benchmarks.jl. The HIERARCH card has an integer value. The float and complex valued cards take more time to parse because parsing a floating-point value is more complex than parsing, say, an integer and because the string storing the floating-point value must be copied to replace letters d and D, allowed in FITS standard to indicate the exponent, by an e.

For comparison, just extracting the keyword, value, and comment parts from a 80-characters FITS card by calling the functions fits_get_keyname and fits_parse_value of CFITSIO library takes about 150 ns on the same machine. This does not includes the allocation of the buffers to store these 3 parts (about 120 ns for this) and the parsing of the value which are all included in the timings of the FISCard constructor above.