Table Data

In this chapter, we’ll discuss the data component in a table HDU. A table will always be in an extension HDU, never in a primary HDU.

There are two kinds of table in the FITS standard: binary tables and ASCII tables. Binary tables are more economical in storage and faster in data access and manipulation. ASCII tables store the data in a “human readable” form and therefore take up more storage space as well as more processing time since the ASCII text needs to be parsed into numerical values.

Table Data as a Record Array

What is a Record Array?

A record array is an array which contains records (i.e. rows) of heterogeneous data types. Record arrays are available through the records module in the numpy library. Here is a simple example of record array:

>>> from numpy import rec
>>> bright = rec.array([(1,'Sirius', -1.45, 'A1V'),
...                     (2,'Canopus', -0.73, 'F0Ib'),
...                     (3,'Rigil Kent', -0.1, 'G2V')],
...                     formats='int16,a20,float32,a10',
...                     names='order,name,mag,Sp')

In this example, there are 3 records (rows) and 4 fields (columns). The first field is a short integer, second a character string (of length 20), third a floating point number, and fourth a character string (of length 10). Each record has the same (heterogeneous) data structure.

The underlying data structure used for FITS tables is a class called FITS_rec which is a specialized subclass of numpy.recarray. A FITS_rec can be instantiated directly using the same initialization format presented for plain recarrays as in the example above. One may also instantiate a new FITS_rec from a list of PyFITS Column objects using the FITS_rec.from_columns() class method. This has the exact same semantics as BinTableHDU.from_columns() and TableHDU.from_columns(), except that it only returns an actual FITS_rec array and not a whole HDU object.

Metadata of a Table

The data in a FITS table HDU is basically a record array, with added attributes. The metadata, i.e. information about the table data, are stored in the header. For example, the keyword TFORM1 contains the format of the first field, TTYPE2 the name of the second field, etc. NAXIS2 gives the number of records(rows) and TFIELDS gives the number of fields (columns). For FITS tables, the maximum number of fields is 999. The data type specified in TFORM is represented by letter codes for binary tables and a FORTRAN-like format string for ASCII tables. Note that this is different from the format specifications when constructing a record array.

Reading a FITS Table

Like images, the .data attribute of a table HDU contains the data of the table. To recap, the simple example in the Quick Tutorial:

>>> f ='bright_stars.fits')  # open a FITS file
>>> tbdata = f[1].data  # assume the first extension is a table
>>> print tbdata[:2]  # show the first two rows
[(1, 'Sirius', -1.4500000476837158, 'A1V'),
(2, 'Canopus', -0.73000001907348633, 'F0Ib')]

>>> print tbdata['mag']  # show the values in field "mag"
[-1.45000005 -0.73000002 -0.1 ]
>>> print tbdata.field(1)  # columns can be referenced by index too
['Sirius' 'Canopus' 'Rigil Kent']

Note that in PyFITS, when using the field() method, it is 0-indexed while the suffixes in header keywords, such as TFORM is 1-indexed. So, tbdata.field(0) is the data in the column with the name specified in TTYPE1 and format in TFORM1.


The FITS format allows table columns with a zero-width data format, such as '0D'. This is probably intended as a space-saving measure on files in which that column contains no data. In such files, the zero-width columns are ommitted when accessing the table data, so the indexes of fields might change when using the field() method. For this reason, if you expect to encounter files containing zero-width columns it is recommended to access fields by name rather than by index.

Table Operations

Selecting Records in a Table

Like image data, we can use the same “mask array” idea to pick out desired records from a table and make a new table out of it.

In the next example, assuming the table’s second field having the name ‘magnitude’, an output table containing all the records of magnitude > 5 from the input table is generated:

>>> import pyfits
>>> t ='table.fits')
>>> tbdata = t[1].data
>>> mask = tbdata.['magnitude'] > 5
>>> newtbdata = tbdata[mask]
>>> hdu = pyfits.BinTableHDU(data=newtbdata)
>>> hdu.writeto('newtable.fits')

Merging Tables

Merging different tables is straightforward in PyFITS. Simply merge the column definitions of the input tables:

>>> t1 ='table1.fits')
>>> t2 ='table2.fits')
>>> new_columns = t1[1].columns + t2[1].columns
>>> hdu = pyfits.BinTableHDU.from_columns(new_columns)
>>> hdu.writeto('newtable.fits')

The number of fields in the output table will be the sum of numbers of fields of the input tables. Users have to make sure the input tables don’t share any common field names. The number of records in the output table will be the largest number of records of all input tables. The expanded slots for the originally shorter table(s) will be zero (or blank) filled.

A simpler version of this example can be used to append a new column to a table. Updating an existing table with a new column is generally more difficult than it’s worth, but one can “append” a column to a table by creating a new table with columns from the existing table plus the new column(s):

>>> orig_table ='table.fits')[1].data
>>> orig_cols = orig_table.columns
>>> new_cols = pyfits.ColDefs([
...     pyfits.Column(name='NEWCOL1', format='D',
...                   array=np.zeros(len(orig_table))),
...     pyfits.Column(name='NEWCOL2', format='D',
...                   array=np.zeros(len(orig_table)))])
>>> hdu = pyfits.BinTableHDU.from_columns(orig_cols + new_cols)
>>> hdu.writeto('newtable.fits')

Now newtable.fits contains a new table with the original table, plus the two new columns filled with zeros.

Appending Tables

Appending one table after another is slightly trickier, since the two tables may have different field attributes. Here are two examples. The first is to append by field indices, the second one is to append by field names. In both cases, the output table will inherit column attributes (name, format, etc.) of the first table:

>>> t1 ='table1.fits')
>>> t2 ='table2.fits')
>>> nrows1 = t1[1].data.shape[0]
>>> nrows2 = t2[1].data.shape[0]
>>> nrows = nrows1 + nrows2
>>> hdu = pyfits.BinTableHDU.from_columns(t1[1].columns, nrows=nrows)
>>> for colname in t1[1].columns.names:
...[colname][nrows1:] = t2[1].data[colname]
>>> hdu.writeto('newtable.fits')

Scaled Data in Tables

A table field’s data, like an image, can also be scaled. Scaling in a table has a more generalized meaning than in images. In images, the physical data is a simple linear transformation from the storage data. The table fields do have such a construct too, where BSCALE and BZERO are stored in the header as TSCALn and TZEROn. In addition, boolean columns and ASCII tables’ numeric fields are also generalized “scaled” fields, but without TSCAL and TZERO.

All scaled fields, like the image case, will take extra memory space as well as processing. So, if high performance is desired, try to minimize the use of scaled fields.

All the scalings are done for the user, so the user only sees the physical data. Thus, this no need to worry about scaling back and forth between the physical and storage column values.

Creating a FITS Table

Column Creation

To create a table from scratch, it is necessary to create individual columns first. A Column constructor needs the minimal information of column name and format. Here is a summary of all allowed formats for a binary table:

FITS format code         Description                     8-bit bytes

L                        logical (Boolean)               1
X                        bit                             *
B                        Unsigned byte                   1
I                        16-bit integer                  2
J                        32-bit integer                  4
K                        64-bit integer                  4
A                        character                       1
E                        single precision floating point 4
D                        double precision floating point 8
C                        single precision complex        8
M                        double precision complex        16
P                        array descriptor                8
Q                        array descriptor                16

We’ll concentrate on binary tables in this chapter. ASCII tables will be discussed in a later chapter. The less frequently used X format (bit array) and P format (used in variable length tables) will also be discussed in a later chapter.

Besides the required name and format arguments in constructing a Column, there are many optional arguments which can be used in creating a column. Here is a list of these arguments and their corresponding header keywords and descriptions:

Argument        Corresponding         Description
in Column()     header keyword

name            TTYPE                 column name
format          TFORM                 column format
unit            TUNIT                 unit
null            TNULL                 null value (only for B, I, and J)
bscale          TSCAL                 scaling factor for data
bzero           TZERO                 zero point for data scaling
disp            TDISP                 display format
dim             TDIM                  multi-dimensional array spec
start           TBCOL                 starting position for ASCII table
array                                 the data of the column

Here are a few Columns using various combination of these arguments:

>>> import numpy as np
>>> from pyfits import Column
>>> counts = np.array([312, 334, 308, 317])
>>> names = np.array(['NGC1', 'NGC2', 'NGC3', 'NGC4'])
>>> c1 = Column(name='target', format='10A', array=names)
>>> c2 = Column(name='counts', format='J', unit='DN', array=counts)
>>> c3 = Column(name='notes', format='A10')
>>> c4 = Column(name='spectrum', format='1000E')
>>> c5 = Column(name='flag', format='L', array=[True, False, True, True])

In this example, formats are specified with the FITS letter codes. When there is a number (>1) preceding a (numeric type) letter code, it means each cell in that field is a one-dimensional array. In the case of column c4, each cell is an array (a numpy array) of 1000 elements.

For character string fields, the number be to the left of the letter ‘A’ when creating binary tables, and should be to the right when creating ASCII tables. However, as this is a common confusion both formats are understood when creating binary tables (note, however, that upon writing to a file the correct format will be written in the header). So, for columns c1 and c3, they both have 10 characters in each of their cells. For numeric data type, the dimension number must be before the letter code, not after.

After the columns are constructed, the BinTableHDU.from_columns() class method can be used to construct a table HDU. We can either go through the column definition object:

>>> coldefs = pyfits.ColDefs([c1, c2, c3, c4, c5])
>>> tbhdu = pyfits.BinTableHDU.from_columns(coldefs)

or directly use the BinTableHDU.from_columns() method:

>>> tbhdu = pyfits.BinTableHDU.from_columns([c1, c2, c3, c4, c5])


Users familiar with older versions of PyFITS will wonder what happened to pyfits.new_table(). It is still there, but is deprecated. BinTableHDU.from_columns() and its companion for ASCII tables TableHDU.from_columns() are the same as pyfits.new_table() in the arguments they accept and their behavior. They just make it more explicit what type of table HDU they create.

A look of the newly created HDU’s header will show that relevant keywords are properly populated:

>>> tbhdu.header
XTENSION = 'BINTABLE'                      / binary table extension
BITPIX   =                               8 / array data type
NAXIS    =                               2 / number of array dimensions
NAXIS1   =                            4025 / length of dimension 1
NAXIS2   =                               4 / length of dimension 2
PCOUNT   =                               0 / number of group parameters
GCOUNT   =                               1 / number of groups
TFIELDS  =                               5 / number of table fields
TTYPE1   = 'target '
TFORM1   = '10A '
TTYPE2   = 'counts '
TFORM2   = 'J '
TUNIT2   = 'DN '
TTYPE3   = 'notes '
TFORM3   = '10A '
TTYPE4   = 'spectrum'
TFORM4   = '1000E '
TTYPE5   = 'flag '
TFORM5   = 'L '


It should be noted that when creating a new table with BinTableHDU.from_columns(), an in-memory copy of all of the input column arrays is created. This is because it is not guaranteed that the columns are arranged contiguously in memory in row-major order (in fact, they are most likely not), so they have to be combined into a new array.

However, if the array data is already contiguous in memory, such as in an existing record array, a kludge can be used to create a new table HDU without any copying. First, create the Columns as before, but without using the array= argument:

>>> c1 = Column(name='target', format='10A')

Then call BinTableHDU.from_columns():

>>> tbhdu = pyfits.BinTableHDU.from_columns([c1, c2, c3, c4, c5])

This will create a new table HDU as before, with the correct column definitions, but an empty data section. Now simply assign your array directly to the HDU’s data attribute:

>>> = mydata

In a future version of PyFITS table creation will be simplified and this process won’t be necessary.