C or Cython Extensions

Astropy supports using C extensions for wrapping C libraries and Cython for speeding up computationally-intensive calculations. Both Cython and C extension building can be customized using the get_extensions function of the setup_package.py file. If defined, this function must return a list of distutils.core.Extension objects. The creation process is left to the subpackage designer, and can be customized however is relevant for the extensions in the subpackage.

While C extensions must always be defined through the get_extensions mechanism, Cython files (ending in .pyx) are automatically located and loaded in separate extensions if they are not in get_extensions. For Cython extensions located in this way, headers for numpy C functions are included in the build, but no other external headers are included. .pyx files present in the extensions returned by get_extensions are not included in the list of extensions automatically generated extensions. Note that this allows disabling a Cython file by providing an extension that includes the Cython file, but giving it the special name ‘cython_skip’. Any extension with this package name will not be built by setup.py.


If an Extension object is provided for Cython source files using the get_extensions mechanism, it is very important that the .pyx files be given as the source, rather than the .c files generated by Cython.

Using Numpy C headers

If your C or Cython extensions uses numpy at the C level, you probably need access to the numpy C headers. A common idiom you can find in the numpy docs or other examples involves getting the include directory by calling numpy.get_include(). However, using this in setup_package.py will not work, because setup_package.py needs to be able to import even when none of the dependencies are present. To work around this need, simply include the string 'numpy' in the list that is passed to the include_dirs argument of distutils.core.Extension. The astropy setup helpers will then use numpy.get_include() downstream once it is certain that the dependencies have actually been processed. For example:

from distutils.extension import Extension

def get_extensions():
    return Extension(name='myextension', sources=['myext.pyx'],

Installing C header files

If your C extension needs to be linked from other third-party C code, you probably want to install its header files along side the Python module.

  1. Create an include directory inside of your package for all of the header files.

  2. Use the get_package_data hook in setup_package.py to install those header files. For example, the astropy.wcs package has this:

    def get_package_data():
        return {'astropy.wcs': ['include/*.h']}

Preventing importing at build time

In rare cases, some packages may need to be imported at build time. Unfortunately, anything that requires a C or Cython extension will fail to import until the build phase has completed. In this cases, the _ASTROPY_SETUP_ variable can be used to determine if the package is being imported as part of the build and choose to not import problematic modules. _ASTROPY_SETUP_ is inserted into the builtins, and is True when inside of astropy’s setup.py script, and False otherwise.

For example, suppose there is a subpackage foo that needs to import a module called version.py at build time in order to set some version information, and also has a C extension, process, that will not be available in the source tree. In this case, astropy/foo/__init__.py would probably want to check the value of _ASTROPY_SETUP_ before importing the C extension:

    from . import process
except ImportError:
    if not _ASTROPY_SETUP_:

from . import version

Speed up your builds with ccache

ccache is a tool that caches compiled sources so that they don’t have to be recompiled (so long as they are unchanged) even if the outputs have been deleted. This means that if you switch branches or clean your source checkout you can save a lot of time by avoiding the majority of re-compiles from scratch.

Because installation and configuration of ccache varies from platform to platform, please consult the ccache documentation and/or Google to set up ccache on your system–this is strongly encouraged for anyone doing significant development of Astropy or scientific programming in general.