Create Content

On December 17, 2020MAST began production of new ACS and WFC3 products in the HST data calibration pipeline. These Hubble Legacy Archive (HLA)-style mosaics comprise the data from a single HST visit and are aligned to a common astrometric reference frame. These mosaics will be available as they are produced in the pipeline; it will take some roughly 1-2 months before all archival data have been processed.

These new 'Hubble Advanced Products' (HAP) are referred to as 'Single Visit Mosaics' (SVMs). They are all drizzled onto the same north-up pixel grid and may have improved relative alignment across filters for images acquired within the same visit, enabling easy comparison of the images through multiple filters. When possible, sources in the images have been aligned directly to the Gaia source catalog to improve the image world coordinate system (WCS). SVM data products with both relative alignment (by filter) and absolute alignment to Gaia will contain the string 'FIT_SVM_GAIA' in the 'WCSNAME' keyword in the science extension of the image header. The software used to compute these new data products is described in the DrizzlePac documentation for Single Visit Mosaic Processing.

On December 3, 2019, the first set of improved astrometry data were released in MAST. All WFC3 and ACS imaging filters were aligned to a common astrometric reference frame and include two corrections to the header WCS. The first makes use of a new version of the Hubble Guide Star Catalog (GSC version 2.4.0) which updates the coordinates of the guide stars with the positions from Gaia DR1. This reduces the typical uncertainties in the positions of the guide stars to ~200 mas over the entire sky. Combining this with knowledge of the instrument distortions, an a priori correction was made. When possible, an additional correction was applied by aligning sources in each HST image directly to the Gaia catalog, referred to as an a posteriori correction. While some observing modes cannot be aligned to Gaia (e.g. grism and moving target observations) or the alignment may fail due to a lack of sources in either the HST image or the Gaia catalog, approximately 80% of ACS/WFC and 50% of WFC3/IR frames have been directly aligned. For these data products, the typical pointing uncertainty is reduced to ~10 mas, although the uncertainties increase for observations further in time from the Gaia reference epoch (2015.0 for DR1, 2015.5 for DR2). The software used to produce these drizzled products is described on the Pipeline Astrometric Calibration page.


Images downloaded from the archive after reprocessing with the new Enhanced Pipeline Products code will have headerlets added as extra extensions to the FITS file. A new python notebook, 'Using updated astrometry solutions', will familiarize users with the structure of the new FITS images and demonstrate how the primary WCS may be changed to any other preferred solution. These instructions will also show how to back out the new WCS updates entirely if desired (see the section below on 'Caveats').

Alternatively, any of the new WCS solutions may be downloaded from MAST/STScI as separate headerlet files and applied to existing data. For users who wish to manually reprocess existing data, the 'updatewcs' task in the STWCS package as used by the Enhanced Pipeline Products code will be able to automatically connect to the astrometry database to retrieve and apply the headerlets. Python functions for creating, updating, and applying headerlets to FITS images are described via the Headerlet User Interface.

Guide Star Catalogs

Historically, the accuracy of HST absolute astrometry has been limited primarily by uncertainties in the celestial coordinates of the guide stars as specified in the Guide Star Catalog. GSC 1.1 had nominal rms errors of ~0.5 arcsec per coordinate, with errors as large as ~1‐3 arcsec reported near the plate edges. This accuracy improved substantially in October 2005 (during Cycle 15) with the introduction of GSC 2.3.2, where rms errors per coordinate were reduced to ~0.3 arcsec over the whole sky.  An updated version of the catalog (GSC 2.4.0) was released in October 2017, improving the celestial coordinates with the positions from Gaia DR1 and reducing errors to < 30mas over the entire sky. After including uncertainties in the positions of the science instruments (SIs) in the alignment of the focal plane to the Fine Guidance Sensors (FGS), the total error in HST absolute astrometry is ~1 arcsec for observations made with GSC 1.1, ~0.3 arcsec for those with GSC 2.3.2, and ~0.2 arcsec for those with GSC 2.4.0. These errors are reduced to ~10 mas for observations with a posteriori alignment to Gaia. A summary of pointing errors over the HST lifetime and the expected accuracy of the updated WCS solutions is provided in Table 1. 

Table 1: Key Guide Star Catalog releases and associated errors 


Release Date

Mean Epoch of catalog positions

Typical errors

Worst errors

Total Error (including SI to FGS alignment)


GSC 2.4.0 + Gaia FitDec 20192015.50.01"

GSC 2.4.0

Oct 2017




GSC2.3.4 aligned to Gaia DR1    

Complete GSC Summary

WCSNAME=  'IDC*-GSC240',   'IDC*-HSC30'

GSC 2.3.3Oct 2009

WFC3 installed May 2009

GSC 2.3.2

Oct 2005





Public Release

GSC 1.1 and GSC 2.3.2 Comparison

GSC 2.2.0

Jun 2001

Public Release

ACS installed Mar 2002

GSC 2.0

Jan 2000

Science target fields only; GSC2 summary

GSC 1.1

Aug 1992





First version published for the user community

Used by HST operations prior to Cycle 15

WFPC2 installed Dec 1993

GSC 1.0

Jun 1989


 GSC1 summary

HST Astrometry Project

The coordinates populated in the FITS headers of HST observations retrieved from DADS (the HST Data Archiving and Distribution Service) were derived based on the guide star coordinates in use at the time of the observation. As the accuracy in these catalogs were refined over time, the pointing accuracy of HST has also improved. Table 1 lists the catalog in use at the time of installation of the three main imaging cameras (WFPC2, ACS, and WFC3) and the typical errors at each epoch.

The goal of the HST Astrometry Project is to correct these inconsistencies in the archival data products as much as possible.  As observations are processed or reprocessed in the HST pipeline, their World Coordinate System (WCS) will be updated to use the most accurate solution available. There are two types of corrections that can be performed:

  • a priori         : correct the coordinates of the guide stars in use at the time of observation to the coordinates of those stars as determined by Gaia, applying a global offset to the WCS
  • a posteriori  : identify sources in the HST image and cross-match with positions from an external reference catalog (such as Gaia) to improve the WCS (fitting x/y to RA/Dec)

Note that a priori corrections are only relevant for observations which executed prior October 2017 (eg. prior to the release of GSC 2.4.0), and these will still include small errors in the alignment of the science instruments to the HST focal plane. The a posteriori corrections are limited to imaging instruments for which there are an adequate number sources to define a reference catalog for matching. These solutions remove uncertainties in the focal plane and are expected to have the smallest absolute astrometric error.


The key to implementing improvements to the astrometry is the use of headerlets, self-contained FITS extensions containing a WCS transformation which can be attached to a FITS file and applied to the primary WCS. An observation can have multiple headerlets, each of which may have astrometry derived by differing methods. As HST data is processed/reprocessed, all available headerlets will be present as FITS extensions in the archived image with the best solution applied to the primary WCS.  More details on how the WCS information is stored in headerlets may be found on the page Astrometry in Drizzled Products.

WCS Naming Conventions

Successfully aligning an observation to Gaia using the a posteriori processing will result in an update of the 'active' WCS of the image with the new solution and the new headerlet extension. This headerlet not only includes the WCS keywords which define the transformation from pixels to Gaia-aligned positions on the sky, but it also contains information about how this solution was derived along with the errors to be expected based on the fit. 

The various WCS solutions are identified by the WCSNAME keyword found in each FITS headerlet and use the following naming convention: 

wcsName = OriginalSolution - CorrectionType

 where OriginalSolution may be either

  •    OPUS : initial ground system wcs, no distortion correction
  •    IDC_xxxxxxxxx : initial distortion corrected wcs  (where xxxxxxxxx = geometric distortion model used, eg. the rootname of the IDCTAB reference file)

 and CorrectionType may have several forms

  •    GSC240 : 'a priori' WCS where guide star coordinates are corrected from the original reference frame (e.g. GSC1.1 or GSC2.3) to the Gaia DR1-based GSC2.4.0
  •    HSC30 :   'a priori' WCS corrected from the original reference frame to the Hubble Source Catalog (HSC v3.0) frame, which is based on Gaia DR1
  •    FIT-IMG-RefCat  : 'a posteriori' WCS matched to a reference catalog, where 'IMG' implies each FLT is separately aligned to the reference catalog
  •    FIT-REL-RefCat   : 'a posteriori' WCS matched to a reference catalog, where 'REL' implies that FLTs within the same filter within the same visit are aligned before a global catalog alignment
  •    FIT-SVM-RefCat : 'a posteriori' WCS matched to a reference catalog, where 'SVM' implies that FLTs in multiple filters within the same visit are aligned before a global catalog alignment

More details on interpreting the WCS names may be found on the Astrometry in Drizzled Products page. A list of possible 'active' WCSNAME values populated in the image headers is provided in Table 2.

Table 2: Sample active WCSNAME keyword values and the corresponding WCSTYPE description 





‘distorted not aligned’

No distortion correction has been applied; analysis of these FLT/FLC files may only be performed if corrected by the instrument-specific pixel area map


‘undistorted not aligned'                                                                   

Distortion-corrected using the IDCTAB reference file '0461802ej_idc.fits', but not aligned to an external catalog


‘undistorted a priori solution based on GSC240'

Alignment based on Guide Star Catalog v2.4.0 (GSC240).  Absolute errors ~0.1"


‘undistorted a priori solution based on HSC30’

Alignment based on Hubble Source Catalog v3.0.  HSC30 errors are typically smaller than GSC240. If both corrections are available, HSC takes precedence.


‘undistorted a posteriori solution relatively aligned to GAIADR1’

Exposures aligned to one another, and then aligned as a set to Gaia DR1


‘undistorted a posteriori solution relatively aligned to GAIADR2’

Exposures aligned to one another, and then aligned as a set to Gaia DR2, including proper motion corrections to HST observation epoch


‘undistorted a posteriori solution relatively aligned to NONE’

Exposures relatively aligned to one another, but the quality of the fit to an absolute reference catalog is unverified and should be checked by the user


‘undistorted a posteriori solution aligned image-by-image to GAIADR*’

Exposures individually aligned to Gaia DR1 or DR2 (not as a set)


‘undistorted a posteriori solution aligned image-by-image to NONE’

Exposures individually aligned to a reference catalog, but the quality of the fit is unverified and should be checked by the user
IDC_0461802ej-FIT_SVM_GAIADR*‘undistorted a posteriori solution relatively aligned filter-by-filter to GAIADR*’**NEW** Exposures aligned to to Gaia DR1 or DR2, with improved relative alignment across filters in a visit and then drizzled onto a common output pixel grid


While the majority of calibrated HST data products are now aligned to a common absolute reference frame, further improvements may be possible via manual realignment using the drizzlepac tools.  This is particularly true for exposures acquired in the same visit where the WCSNAMEs does not contain the string 'FIT_SVM_GAIA'.  For standard drizzled data products:

  • Short and long exposures obtained in the same visit may no longer be aligned due to potentially different number of Gaia matches.
  • Exposures in different filters (eg. narrowband vs broadband) which were obtained in the same visit may no longer be aligned to one another, for example, if each filter had a different number of matches to Gaia.

Furthermore, grism images will now be offset from their direct image counterparts, where only the later of which may be aligned to an external reference catalog. In order to preserve relative alignment between grism and direct images, users may wish to back out the updated WCS solutions entirely, as described in Section 5 of the python notebook, 'Using updated astrometry solutions'.

  • No labels
Write a comment…