FITS Liberator

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The ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator


For many years astronomical images from the world’s telescopes were reserved for an elite of astronomers and technical people. Now anyone with a desktop computer running Adobe® Photoshop® software can try their hand at crafting astronomical images as beautiful as those from the Hubble Space Telescope. This free software plug-in, makes a treasure trove of archival astronomical images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and many other famous telescopes accessible to home astronomy enthusiasts.

The first version of the FITS Liberator brought non-professional astronomers the possibility to produce stunning astronomical images that, for years, had only been the privilege of the scientific community.

With the advent of the FITS Liberator v.2, it became possible for people at home to create even more spectacular pictures like the iconic Hubble image “Pillars of Creation” in a matter of minutes.

FITS Liberator

Version 2.2 of The ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator has been improved in several areas, some of which are:

  • Universal Binary for Mac allows native CS3 operation on Intel-based systems.
  • Flip image checkbox allows image orientation to be selected on import.
  • Root functions (x^1/2, x^1/3, x^1/4, x^1/5) now operate symmetrically about x=0.
  • Version 1.1 of the Astronomy Visualization Metadata (AVM) standard is now fully supported. For more information see
  • The import of coordinate metadata from the FITS header has been improved

Apart from the great advantages of an interactive workflow, the Liberator enables creation of images with improved quality as the many greyscales in the original observations are preserved. This gives added detail in the shadows and an increased gamut (color space) in the finished color images. Get more information about the FITS Liberator on this podcast from Adobe.

"The ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator" has been tested in the Softpedia labs using several industry-leading security solutions and found to be completely clean of adware/spyware components.

We kindly ask users to acknowledge the use of this plug-in in publicly accessible products (web, articles, books etc.) with the following statement: "This image was created with the help of the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator".


   * Windows PC or Mac (OS X 10.4+);
   * Screen resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels or better;
   * Photoshop 7.0 (or later) or Photoshop Elements 2.0 (or later);
   * Mac: Photoshop CS 3.

The Team

The team that produced the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator consists of:

  • Project Lead: Lars Lindberg Christensen (
  • Development Lead: Lars Holm Nielsen
  • Core Functionality: Kaspar K. Nielsen
  • Engine and GUI: Teis Johansen
  • Scientific support: Robert Hurt
  • Technical support and testing: Robert Hurt, Zolt Levay, Bob Fosbury, Richard Hook and Aaron Anderson.

Further Information

For further information on the FITS Liberator, read the PDF article "The ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator 3: Have your say on new features" published on the Communicating Astronomy with the Public 2007 conference proceedings


  • FITS is an abbreviation for Flexible Image Transport System and has been a standard since 1982 and is recognized by the International Astronomical Union.
  • The ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator uses NASA’s CFITSIO library.
  • Adobe and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe Systems Incorporated in the United States and/or other countries.

Future Developments

Note: The creation of Fits Liberator 3.0 has started.

We would like to solicit inputs from the community. Please let us know what you would like to see in FL 3.0. Email to

Limitations by Photoshop version, Photoshop Elements and CS

  • Photoshop CS2, CS3 (32-bit color depth);
  • Photoshop CS (16-bit);
  • Photoshop Elements 3 to Elements 6 (16-bit);
  • Photoshop 7.0 (only 15-bit color, and only partial functionality for more than 8-bit color);
  • Photoshop Elements 2 (only 8-bit color) (Elements 1.0 NOT supported);
  • On Mac only Photoshop CS3 is supported.

Known Issues

Photoshop CS 3, Intel Macs & Vista:

Version 2.1

  • Intel Macs & Photoshop CS3: FL 2.1 should work with Photoshop CS3 if the application is forced to run under Rosetta. The next version will be a universal binary that can run native on Intel Macs and CS3, however a new release is not planned until the winter 2007/2008. To run Photoshop under Rosetta, right-click on the Photoshop application icon in Finder and choose "Get Info". In the opened window, check-mark the option "Open under Rosetta".
  • Concatenator: Under Photoshop CS3 the composite image is too big and can often not be created because of a lack of memory.
  • Windows Vista: There are some painting issues on the Preview page when the main window is initially displayed. Furthermore there are some painting issues with the stretch function and zoom drop down lists.

Note: Issues 1-3 below should have been corrected in version 1.01 that can be downloaded here.

Version 1.0

  • Installation of the plug-in for Windows Elements 2.0 installed in a directory other than the default c:\program files\Adobe\Photoshop Elements 2 may have to install the files manually. Read here.
  • File association .fts does not work in Windows. Please rename the file to .fits.
  • Users of Photoshop for other languages may have to install the files manually. Read here. A possible workaround is to write the path to the C:\Program Files\Adobe\Photoshop CS\Plugins\ in the Photoshop Settings (Plugins and Virtual Memory).
  • Photoshop may have problems opening FITS files in a very deep file hierachy, e.g. c:\Documents and Settings\Jay Beck\My Documents\My Work\Lib\Pictures\Science\Astronomy\Planetary nebula NGC 6881\ . Move the file to a less deep file heirarchy.
  • Photoshop may have problems opening FITS files that reside in directories with brackets - () or [] - in the name. Move the file to directory without brackets.


Datasets for education and for fun

On the data pages you will find some sets of image files taken of astronomical objects.

Each dataset contains:

  • FITS files of the astronomical object taken through different wavelength filters. The name of the file gives an indication of the filter used.
  • Composite 16 bit and 8 bit colour image in Photoshop (.psd) format that contains the original exposures in different coloured layers. The 8 bit formats are mainly for users of Photoshop 7.0 and Elements 2.0. The separate layers allow separate manipulation of the individual exposures. The images were imported into Photoshop with the ESA/ESO/NASA Photoshop FITS Liberator.
  • A link to any original news releases where more astronomical information about the object can be found.
  1. The Eagle Nebula
  2. The Star Forming Nebula - Messier 17
  3. The Proto Planetary Nebula - Roberts 22
  4. The Planetary Nebula NGC 5307
  5. The Planetary Nebula NGC 6309 - Box Nebula
  6. The Planetary Nebula NGC 6881
  7. Ultraviolet Venus
  8. The Galaxy NGC 1068
  9. The star-forming region N11B
 10. The Planetary Nebula NGC 6302 - Bug Nebula
 11. The Dwarf Galaxy NGC 1569
 12. The Globular Cluster Messier 12
 13. The Globular Cluster NGC 6652
 14. The Galaxy Messier 31
 15. The Open Cluster Messier 35
 16. The Orion Nebula Messier 42
 17. The colliding Antennae Galaxies

The ESO/ST-ECF Science Data Archive

  • Go to "On-line User Registration"
  • Fill in the form (do not worry too much about the "Storage medium issues"
  • When you receive your login and password, go to the archive you want data from). Let's take the case of the Hubble Archive.
  • Type the name of the object you would like data from in the "Target" field, or type the coordinates (re, dec) if you have them. For instance M 42.
  • Choose the instrument you would like data from, for instance WFPC2.
  • Check the exposures you want.
  • Click "Request marked Datasets"
  • Type login/password.
  • Select "HST associated products: NICMOS CalnicB, WFPC2 imshift + imcombine: if possible
  • Select "FTP"
  • Press submit
  • You will now receive an email stating you have submitted a request.
  • After a few hours the data will have been retrieved from the archive and calibrated with the most recent algoritms and ready for you to download via the Internet (ftp in a web browser).
  • Choose only files with the following endings (see the documentation here if necessary):
              1. *********b.c0.fits
              2. *********.c0.fits
              3. *********r.c0.fits
  • Images from the WFPC2 camera are made out of four seperate exposures from the four CCD chips. They are layered in so-called "planes". In the FITS Liberator you have to import each plane at a time and stitch them together manually.
  • If you plan to use WFPC2 images for very high-level products such as press release images, it is recommended to use an automated task to combine the 4 individual WFPC2 images. We use IRAF's Wmosaic task. It corrects for geometric distortion (the camera is not exactly aligned with Hubble's optical axis) and rotates, offsets and scales the individual images to produce one large mosaic image. Furthermore the task dues a pretty good job of 'stitching' together the edges (not perfect, but better than by hand).

ESO's Digitized Sky Survey archive

  • Type the name of an object in "Object Name:", e.g. M 42
  • Choose image size, measure in arc-minutes or 1/60 degree. E.g. 5 x 5.
  • Choose Survey, e.g. "DSS-2-blue"
  • Choose output format, e.g. "Display as GIF", or "Download as FITS file".
  • Repeat for other filters to collect three different colours
  • Read the FITS files into Photoshop with the FITS Liberator.
  • Combine them to a colour image
  • Align the images. "DSS-2-Red" images normally need scaling. Try 101.15%.

STScI's Data Archive

The Multimission Archive at STScI (MAST) is a NASA funded project to support and provide to the astronomical community a variety of astronomical data archives, with the primary focus on scientifically related data sets in the optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared parts of the spectrum.

Vizier archive of astronomical catalogues

An astronomical database catalog from the Centre de Données astronomiques de Strasbourg