Linux Astronomy HOWTO

Elwood Downey and John Huggins

$Revision: 1.35 $, $Date: 2001/06/18 18:48:42 $

This document shares tips and resources to utilize Linux solutions in the pursuit of Astronomy.


1. Introduction

2. Software

3. Online Tools

4. Astronomical Images over the web

5. Organizations

6. Hardware Control

7. Installation Help

8. Projects using Linux


1. Introduction


1.1 Knowledge Required

With all the help from major Linux distributions such as SuSE, Redhat, Caldera and many others, Linux based systems are becoming easier to use. However, there is still some need of understanding of basic UNIX skills to make the most of Linux. Thus, this HOWTO will assume that the reader has at least a basic knowledge of using a UNIX system including the ability to compile and install programs.

A few resources we have found useful over the years include:

  • “A Practical Guide to the UNIX System”, Mark G. Sobel
  • “Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment”, the late W. Richard Stevens
  • “Running LINUX”, Matt Welsh et al.
  • “LINUX Device Drivers”, Alessandro Rubini

Similarly, this is not a tutorial or reference for astronomy principles or astronomical instrumentation. Astronomy is perhaps the grandest of all sciences, employing widely disparate disciplines in a bold attempt to understand nothing less than the universe itself. Your interests will lead in many directions. A few references we have used include:

  • “Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac”, P. Kenneth Seidelmann
  • “Astronomy with your Personal Computer”, Peter Duffett-Smith
  • “Astronomy on the Personal Computer”, Oliver Montenbruck et al
  • “Textbook on Spherical Astronomy”, W. M. Smart
  • “The Astronomy and Astrophysics Encyclopedia”, Stephen P. Maran, ed.

1.2 Scope

The authors define the scope of this HOWTO as primarily an index to Linux tools applicable in some fashion to the pursuit of Astronomy. It is NOT our intention to list WWW astronomy references in general. Our own interests tend more towards the technology than the pure science and so we welcome contributions from others who have found Linux tools which contribute in other ways to Astronomy. Please contact us at the address above.

1.3 Version

$Revision: 1.35 $

$Date: 2001/06/18 18:48:42 $

The latest version of this document is always available on the Astronomy Net at Astronomy HOWTO.

We eagerly accept suggestions from you. Send them to Astronomy HOWTO Editors.

1.4 Copyright

Copyright 2000-2001 by Elwood Downey and John Huggins. This document may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the LDP License except that this document must not be distributed in modified form without the author’s consent.

A verbatim copy may be reproduced or distributed in any medium physical or electronic without permission of the author. Translations are similarly permitted without express permission if it includes a notice on who translated it. Commercial redistribution is allowed and encouraged; however please notify authors of any such distributions.

Excerpts from the document may be used without prior consent provided that the derivative work contains the verbatim copy or a pointer to a verbatim copy.

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

In short, we wish to promote dissemination of this information through as many channels as possible. However, we wish to retain copyright on this HOWTO document, and would like to be notified of any plans to redistribute this HOWTO.

1.5 About the authors

Elwood Downey has over twenty years experience in software engineering for various astronomy projects. Learn more about Elwood at Clear Sky Institute.

John Huggins has eleven years experience in hardware engineering including eight years associated with an astronomy project. Learn more at John’s Site.


2. Software


2.1 Collections

Here are some links to collections and other indexes of Linux astronomy software.

If the above does not appeal to your needs, these links may help:

2.2 Planetarium Programs

Here is discussion of programs which run on Linux for use in finding objects, natural and man-made, in the sky.

  • XEphem has been the pet project of one of us (Downey) for the past 15-odd years. It has grown to become one of the more capable interactive tools for the computation of astronomical ephemerides.
  • XSky is by Terry R. Friedrichsen, XSky is essentially an interactive sky atlas.
  • Skymap is an astronomical mapping program written in Fortran and C for unix workstations by Doug Mink of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Telescope Data Center.
  • Xplns reproduces real starry sky on your display of X Window System.
  • Nightfall is an astronomy application for fun, education, and science. It can produce animated views of eclipsing binary stars, calculate synthetic lightcurves and radial velocity curves, and eventually determine the best-fit model for a given set of observational data of an eclipsing binary star system.
  • NOVA free Integrated Observational Environment for astronomers.

2.3 Simulators

Programs that classify themselves as simulators.

  • Celestia Real-time visual simulation of space for Windows and Unix(Linux)
  • OpenUniverse Simulates the Solar System bodies in 3D in Windows and Linux

2.4 Libraries

This section discusses bits and pieces of software that can be used to form the basis for specialized projects.

2.5 Games

Yes, games.

  • Orbit – Be a space fighter pilot in Windows or Linux.

2.6 Other

Every list needs a miscellaneous section, and this is it for Software.

  • IRAF is a gigantic but exceptionally capable astronomical analysis system, shepherded over the past 20-odd years by Doug Tody of NOAO. It has accumulated innumerable authoritative contributions from leading astronomers in all areas of astronomical data analysis. If you have a serious interest in astronomical data reduction and significant time to invest, this system will reward you mightily.
  • Nightfall Eclipsing Binary Star Program
  • Xplanet Very realistic rendering program for Earth and other planets and moons. Uses X Windows and OpenGL.
  • StarPlot A 3-Dimensional Star Chart Viewer for Linux. Uses C++ and Gtk+.


3. Online Tools

I know we said we would not start listing Web sites, but here are a few links to sites which offer fully operational tools running online that we feel are especially useful or interesting, from a browser on any platform.


3.1 Traditional Form Based Programs

3.2 Java Applets


4. Astronomical Images over the web

Much effort exists to allow access to Astronomical image file type such as FITS from any web browser. Here are some pointers.


4.1 List

The folks at Harvard have a list of Image Servers and Image Browsers.


5. Organizations


  • The yearly Astronomical Data Analysis Software and Systems, ADAAS, Conference Series provides a forum for scientists and computer specialists concerned with algorithms, software and operating systems in the acquisition, reduction and analysis of astronomical data. The program includes invited talks, contributed papers and poster sessions as well as user group meetings and special interest meetings (“BOFs”). All these activities aim to encourage communication between software specialists and users, and also to stimulate further development of astronomical software and systems.
  • The linuxastro mailing list,, is for people who are interested in porting astronomical software to linux. For more information, see linuxastro.


6. Hardware Control

More folks are using Linux to control equipment. Users range from amateur astronomers in the field to professional observatories.


6.1 Telescope Control

  • OCAAS is a complete Observatory Control and Astronomical Analysis System for Linux.
  • XEphem has the capability to communicate with a telescope control daemon process.


6.2 CCD Camera Control

  • Apogee Instruments Inc supports their line of professional CCD cameras under Linux.
  • SBIG offers some assistance with operating their ST7 and ST8 CCD cameras under Linux.
  • CCD Astronomy on Linux These pages describe a number of facets of using astronomical CCD cameras for image acquisition and processing under Linux.


7. Installation Help

You need to know what you’re doing with Linux and installing programs, but help is available for some programs. Here are some ways to make life easier.


  • AstroMake is is a utility intended to make installations of some common astronomical packages (in binary form) easy.
  • XEphem requires several elements to exist on your machine. Life is much simpler with the CDROM version of the program as it contains an installation script which loads the appropriate precompiled binary for most systems and places all auxiliary files to the correct spots. See XEphem CDROM


8. Projects using Linux

Here is a list of astronomy projects using Linux in whole or in part of their instrumentation:


  • The CHARA Array is an optical interferometer project using Linux in their control system.
  • CAOS Club of Amateurs in Optical Spectroscopy.