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Best Astrophysics programs

Astrophysics / June 11, 2018

Despite being observational and theoretical scientists (in training), astrophysicists spend a great deal of time at their computers (and not just checking the arXiv or their email)! This guide will serve as a nexus for many of the astronomical software programs that an astrophysicist might encounter in his or her daily work. Feel free to peruse the websites of programs and programming languages such as IRAF, CASA, SExtractor, Python and more! If you have a favorite analysis program of your own that you would like to share, please leave a comment.

This guide aims to provide an overview of software and programming languages useful for Astronomy that will be continually updated.

Software Packages

IRAF Image Reduction and Analysis Facility is used for a wide range of tasks pertaining to optical and infrared data processing. STScI has released pyRAF, which allows Python scripting of IRAF tasks, a great advantage when trying to batch process data!

SAO ds9 is an astronomical image viewer and manipulator that has stood the test of time. In order to get started looking at astronomical images, please see Nathan’s astrobite about how to use ds9! An alternative to ds9 is GAIA, the Graphical Astronomy and Image Analysis Tool.

AIPS and CASA are two radio astronomy analysis packages developed for use with data sets from ALMA and the EVLA.

SExtractor, or Source Extractor, is a program that operates on a FITS image to automatically detect objects. Once sources have been identified, a variety of measurements are made including source size, shape and magnitude. A pdf manual is available here (for a slightly older version of the code). SExtractor for Dummies is another manual, though untested by this author.

Simulation software

The cosmological simulation code Gadget-2 is very popular. For more information, see Nathan’s astrobite about how to install and run Gadget-2.

Interactive Software

Worldwide Telescope An effort by Microsoft to combine high quality astronomical data sets into an intuitive data visualization package freely available (and able to run in your web-browser)!

TOPCAT is a program to interactively view tabular data of astronomical data sets. Check out their screenshots page to see some neat examples of what it can do.

LaTeX. You may have noticed that the font and layout used for many of the papers on the arXiv are different from normal Word documents. LaTeX is a document preparation programming language. Yes, you will actually compile your document into a PDF. If you’re running Linux, installing LaTeX is as easy as using a package manager. Otherwise, for Windows you may want to try installing the Miktex distribution. For Macs, the TeXShop interface is available. The LaTeX wikibook is a great place to look for more information on how to get started typesetting scholarly papers.

Apple OS X

By my informal visual survey of graduate students, post-docs, and faculty at the Center for Astrophysics, I would say that greater than 80% of astronomers here use Mac computers. A vast amount of astronomical software was developed on and for the Unix operating system. Mac OS X benefits from being based upon the Unix operating system, which means that many Unix terminal programs are already accessible out of the box. Apple and Steve Jobs have done a wonderful job making intuitive and visually appealing software an important component of their product, and is a large reason why Macs are so widely used in astronomy, a profession that relies heavily on the art of the Keynote/Powerpoint presentation.

Because Macs are so popular, a plethora of online resources are available for astronomers using them. Several are listed here:


Those astronomers that don’t have Macs generally use some flavor of the Linux operating system. Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, and Arch Linux are all popular distributions that many astronomers use (particularly as desktop machines).