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MAST Data Format Guidelines


This document describes recommendations for formatting data sets using the Flexible Image Transport System (i.e. FITS) format for inclusion in the Multi-mission Archive at the Space Telescope Science Institute (MAST). It assumes the reader is already somewhat familiar with FITS format. The terminology used is that defined in the FITS Standard

Choosing the Appropriate FITS Format

FITS has evolved significantly during the past 5 years. (see FITS history). As a result, there is usually more than one way to store the same information within a FITS file. Each mission must decide which FITS format is most appropriate for their own data sets. This may be influenced by the data analysis software currently in place at the users institutions, since not all FITS readers support all the currently available FITS formats. A summary of the FITS formats used by the missions currently supported by MAST can be found in the FITS File Formats table. The table shows that projects have used a variety of FITS formats for archiving data, including all the approved FITS extensions. The one FITS format not represented is the "Random Groups Structure". Although this format is defined in the FITS Standard document and used for radio interferometry data, it has become a deprecated standard and is not recommended for MAST archival data sets.

The HEASARC FITS Working Group (HFWG) has adopted a set of FITS file Recommendations for the high-energy astrophysics community. The HEASARC documents describe detailed recommendations regarding: the use of specific project-defined keywords, recommended formats for particular types of data, the naming of table columns, and the use of particular physical units. Although aimed primarily at the high-energy astrophysics community, the recommendations should be useful for other projects as well.

Similiarly, the AXAF Science Center (ASC) has compiled the ASC FITS File Designers Guide which details the FITS conventions adopted by the AXAF project for its archival data sets. (Note the AXAF guidelines comply with the HFWG guidelines.)

FITS keyword conventions have also been adopted at the Solar Data Analysis Center (SDAC) at Goddard Space Flight Center for several solar missions.

Besides the FITS Support Office at Goddard Space Flight Center, another source for FITS documents, sample FITS files, and links to other FITS-related sites, is the FITS Archive at NRAO .

Note: the links below describing features of the FITS format point to version 2.0 of the FITS standard which was made available in HTML format. The latest standard is version 3.0 which clarified some issues related to version 2 but which is not available in HTML.

Spectral Data

In general, we suggest storing spectral data (i.e., data sets composed of one or more vectors) using binary table extensions. It is also possible to store vectors in a non-homogeneous primary array, (e.g., having a row of wavelengths followed by a row of fluxes, etc.) however it is usually more difficult to interpret the resulting data set. Some data analysis systems have however adopted conventions for handling these files (e.g., IRAF).

A binary table containing vector fields seems the most logical way to store this type of data although historically some FITS readers could not read this format. Hopefully this has changed. With vector fields, one row in the binary table could contain all the data for one spectrum (e.g., a vector of wavelengths, followed by a vector of fluxes, etc.). Additional spectra could be stored in the same manner in the following rows (assuming the vectors are of the same length and format). Currently, a (possibly) more readable but less flexible format would be to store the data in scalar fields so that each row of the table contains all the data for one wavelength. This implies however that the table could not be used for storing multiple (e.g., echelle) spectra. FITS files could however contain multiple binary tables.

If multiple spectra are to be stored which have vectors of variable length, the project must decide between the following format options:

  • pad the vectors with zeroes to a fixed length and store as vector fields in one table,
  • use scalar fields and one spectrum per table with one wavelength/flux value per row in the table,
  • use the recently-approved (i.e., as of April, 2005) variable-length array facility described in the original binary table extension proposal and store all spectra in one table. (The Copernicus raw data sets are an example of this format.)
Although non-linear wavelength values must usually be stored as individual values, linear wavelengths can be stored as FITS keywords (i.e., a starting wavelength and a wavelength increment), or, if multiple spectra are to be stored within each binary table (e.g., one table row per spectra), the starting wavelength and wavelength increment can be stored as scalar data fields within the table. Note the IAU now approves the use of vacuum wavelengths above 2000 Angstroms, so UV data no longer need to contend with the vacuum-to-air correction which causes a non-linearity at 2000 Angstroms.

As mentioned before, not all processing systems support vector fields. Earlier versions of IRAF for example, do not support this format. Although the variable-length array facility was only recently become an approved FITS standard, the use of vector fields in binary tables has been an approved format since 1994, so hopefully more FITS readers will support this format in the future. Projects must decide which format would best serve their user community.

Image Data

Image or multi-dimensional data can be stored as a primary array. This is the most basic FITS format and should be readable by most if not all FITS readers. Technically the Binary table extension can also be used to store multi-dimensional arrays, however most FITS viewers currently require primary array FITS files. Image data can also be scaled (using the BSCALE and BZERO keywords) to allow data to be stored as integers rather than (larger) floating point values, however unless disk space is an issue, it is preferable to store the data unscaled.

FITS extensions can be added for either additional image or spectral data. We recommend image extensions for additional image data, binary tables for storing mixtures of ASCII and binary data, and ASCII tables for purely ASCII data. Note ASCII tables are particularly useful for storing "catalog-type" information.


Besides the required FITS keywords, the project-defined keywords should be sufficient to properly describe the included data. This information is also useful when included as a separate project catalog (see MAST Guidelines for Archiving Astrophysical Data). For processed data, it is useful to store the processing history using FITS commentary keywords (i.e., using the HISTORY, COMMENT, or blank keywords). It is also strongly recommended that the project-defined file name be stored using the FITS FILENAME keyword.

Data to be archived within MAST will be checked for proper syntax using various FITS verification programs. The reserved FITS keywords must follow the standard FITS conventions or they will be modified to conform. (Surprisingly, we have found several errors in the DATE and DATE-OBS keyword values.) Project-specific keywords will generally not be modified. It is suggested that the keyword comment fields be used to help define these keywords.

Keyword Inheritance

There has been some discussion lately about whether information contained in the primary header should be relevant to data stored in the extensions. In other words, should the extensions "inherit" the keywords contained in the primary header. Unfortunately, the FITS community has not reached a consensus on how this should be handled. Some feel the extensions should be self-contained and not linked in any way to the primary header information, while others assume the primary header information should be considered global and apply equally to all data in the file. Adding to the problem is the fact that numerous FITS files were created and archived before the issue was ever raised.

One suggestion has been to include the keyword INHERIT (with a value of either T (true) or F (false)) in the extension headers to indicate whether the primary header keywords apply to each particular extension. This would help avoid the ambiguity, however the INHERIT keyword has not been officially reserved for this purpose. This convention however has been adopted by the HST project and is described in the STScI User's Guide to the IRAF FITS kernel.

A survey of the existing (non-HST) MAST data sets found that inheritance was assumed in all FITS files containing extensions. In other words, all the MAST archived FITS files assume that project-defined keywords in the primary header apply to all the extensions contained within the file. In general, the convention has been to store all the observation information in the primary header, and store only a minimal number of FITS keywords in the extension headers. It may be the case however, that older missions tended to use simpler file formatsi.

It is therefore difficult to give future missions a recommendation regarding keyword inheritance. The choices are basically:

  • assume no inheritance and duplicate all neccessary keywords in all extensions,
  • assume keywords in the primary header are global and apply to all extensions, or
  • use the HST convention of adding the keyword INHERIT to the extension headers indicating whether keyword inheritance should apply.
Perhaps the FITS community will adopt a convention for keyword inheritance in the near future which could apply to all future FITS files.


Another recently discussed issue has been the use of standard units for data stored in FITS format. The current FITS standard states units "... should conform with the recommendations in the IAU style manual ". The problem however is that most UV spectral data archived in MAST use Angstroms for wavelengths and ergs/cm2/s/A for absolute fluxes, both of which are listed in the IAU style manual as "obsolete units". As with the "keyword inheritance" issue, there is not yet a consensus among the FITS community regarding the use of standard units and it is therefore difficult to make a recommendation for future missions.

Coordinate Keywords

It is recommended that data sets include the target coordinates using Right Ascension and Declination specified in decimal degrees. There is currently no consensus as to the keyword names to use, but this may be at least partly dictated by the spacecraft instrumentation. Some of the currently used keywords are shown in the FITS coordinates table.

File Naming Conventions

The only suggestions made for data set names are the following:

  1. the name should be sufficient to uniquely identify each data set,
  2. file names should be case-insensitive,
  3. names should be no longer than necessary.
Historically file names following the ISO 9660 standard had a maximum of 8 characters for the name and 3 characters for the extension. This convention meant that files could be stored on DOS or Windows 3.1 16-bit computer systems without truncating the file name. Now that 32-bit computers are more common, this naming convention is less important and longer file names are common. However consider that many users may need to ftp files between systems, and have to manually type in the file names.