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published by the Imaging Technology Group
supported by the NASA and the National Science Foundation
This animated tutorial explores the basics of scanning probe microscopy (SPM), a branch of microscopy that forms images using a tiny physical probe to scan specimens. The advantage of SPM is that it can produce high resolution images of nanoscale samples and does not require a partial vacuum. This tutorial provides beginners with a very clear picture of how the probe tip interacts with a sample surface to produce 3-dimensional data about topography. The tutorial covers scanning tunneling, contact mode, and tapping mode. For additional background information on probe microscopy, we recommend: Introduction to AFM.

This resource is part of the Virtual Microscope project, which provides cost-free simulated scientific instrumentation for students and researchers worldwide as part of NASA's Virtual Laboratory initiative.  See Related Materials for links to additional animated tutorials on Atomic Force Microscopy and Scanning Electron Microscopy.

Please note that this resource requires Flash.
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© 2007 Imaging Technology Group
AFM animation, SPM animation, atomic force microscope, instrumentation, microscope tutorial, microscopy, microscopy tutorial, scanning probe microscope
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Metadata instance created February 11, 2013 by Caroline Hall
Record Updated:
February 17, 2013 by Caroline Hall
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AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

1. The Nature of Science

1C. The Scientific Enterprise
  • 6-8: 1C/M6. Computers have become invaluable in science, mathematics, and technology because they speed up and extend people's ability to collect, store, compile, and analyze data; prepare research reports; and share data and ideas with investigators all over the world.

3. The Nature of Technology

3A. Technology and Science
  • 6-8: 3A/M2. Technology is essential to science for such purposes as access to outer space and other remote locations, sample collection and treatment, measurement, data collection and storage, computation, and communication of information.

4. The Physical Setting

4D. The Structure of Matter
  • 6-8: 4D/M9. Materials vary in how they respond to electric currents, magnetic forces, and visible light or other electromagnetic waves.

8. The Designed World

8B. Materials and Manufacturing
  • 9-12: 8B/H4. Increased knowledge of the properties of particular molecular structures helps in the design and synthesis of new materials for special purposes.
  • 9-12: 8B/H6. Groups of atoms and molecules can form structures that can be measured in billionths of a meter. The properties of structures at this scale (known as the nanoscale) and materials composed of such structures, can be very different than the properties at the macroscopic scale because of the increase in the ratio of surface area to volume and changes in the relative strengths of different forces at different scales. Increased knowledge of the properties of materials at the nanoscale provides a basis for the development of new materials and new uses of existing materials.

11. Common Themes

11B. Models
  • 6-8: 11B/M4. Simulations are often useful in modeling events and processes.
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AIP Format
(Imaging Technology Group, Urbana, 2007), WWW Document, (
Virtual Microscope: Scanning Probe Microscopy Basics, (Imaging Technology Group, Urbana, 2007), <>.
APA Format
Virtual Microscope: Scanning Probe Microscopy Basics. (2007). Retrieved September 23, 2017, from Imaging Technology Group:
Chicago Format
NASA, and National Science Foundation. Virtual Microscope: Scanning Probe Microscopy Basics. Urbana: Imaging Technology Group, 2007. (accessed 23 September 2017).
MLA Format
Virtual Microscope: Scanning Probe Microscopy Basics. Urbana: Imaging Technology Group, 2007. NASA, and National Science Foundation. 23 Sep. 2017 <>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Title = {Virtual Microscope: Scanning Probe Microscopy Basics}, Publisher = {Imaging Technology Group}, Volume = {2017}, Number = {23 September 2017}, Year = {2007} }
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%T Virtual Microscope: Scanning Probe Microscopy Basics
%D 2007
%I Imaging Technology Group
%C Urbana
%O application/flash

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%D 2007
%T Virtual Microscope: Scanning Probe Microscopy Basics
%I Imaging Technology Group
%V 2017
%N 23 September 2017
%9 application/flash

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Virtual Microscope: Scanning Probe Microscopy Basics:

Is Part Of Virtual Microscope

Link to the main website of Virtual Microscope, which includes instructions for downloading the software for sharing datasets produced by the group's scanning and probing microscopes.

relation by Caroline Hall
Accompanies Virtual Microscope: Scanning Electron Microscopy Basics

A link to an animated tutorial on the structure and function of a Scanning Electron Microscope. Appropriate for high school and undergraduate education.

relation by Caroline Hall
Accompanies Virtual Microscope: Light Microscopy Basics

A highly detailed animated tutorial on light microscopy, including simple and compound microscope anatomy, polarized microscopy, darkfield, and fluorescent microscopy. Appropriate for AP physics or for a course in electricity and magnetism.

relation by Caroline Hall
Supplements TryEngineering: Be A Scanning Probe Microscope

This lesson suggests a physical model to help secondary students comprehend how a scanning probe microscope works to "read" the surface of nano-scale samples.

relation by Caroline Hall

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