I'm guessing Cmdr Hadfield's tweet is only showing an old file photo, but electron microscopes can be quite handy and complement optical microscopes, at high or even low magnification as shown here.

Has there ever been any kind of a charged particle scanning probe or imaging-based device in space to investigate small samples? EM, SPM, SIMS, FIB, etc... anything at all like that, ever?

Yes most are large and bulky, but they can be made quite small (search for "Desktop or Phenom Electron Microscope for example), and of course outside of a pressured volume, having a preexisting vacuum of space makes them easier to build and lower mass as well.

screen shot of Cmdr_Hadfield tweet 1035289238873550848

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    $\begingroup$ Using very compact water cooled electromagnetic lenses is possible on Earth but difficult in space. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ Gadgets, more gadgets $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ A quick search of nasa.gov shows plenty of optical scopes on the ISS, including the MSPR-JAXA fluorescent/phase-contrast scope and the FIR-LMM dark-field/phase-contrast scope. Also, plenty of experiments where samples were returned to Earth for E-M analysis. However, no search results for electron microscopes in space. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ @DrSheldon I've tried to keep the definition broad, any kind of scanning, or direct imaging charged particle optics system would apply, not just a standard electron microscope. I have a hunch the answer is still negative, but it's still possible there's something, perhaps mechanically scanned alpha particle X-ray spectrometer even. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 0:27

3 Answers 3


In general, we prefer to return samples to Earth for analysis. There are many benefits: no need to haul instrumentation into orbit, plenty of storage/time/personnel/equipment for analysis, and easier to modify or expand experiments. When instrumentation is brought into space, it typically is for one of the following justifications:

  • It is measuring something at that particular location (e.g. radiation, pictures of a planet's surface) which can't be "brought back".
  • It is needed for or by the astronauts (e.g. biotelemetry, monitoring of cabin conditions).
  • It measures the progress of a phenomenon over time (e.g. cell growth, astronaut weight).
  • A sample would be altered or destroyed by its return to Earth (e.g. fluid experiments).

Skylab had a handheld optical microscope. It was used to examine the growth of bacteria and fungi in space, cytoplasmic streaming in Elodea, and the behavior of antibodies in a weightless environment. A camera was attached to the microscope in some experiments.

Skylab microscope

There are references to microscopes in the Spacelab module aboard the Space Shuttle. However, not enough details are given to determine the types of these instruments.

The International Space Station has had a variety of microscopes on board. One is a fairly traditional optical scope:

The Saibo Rack (Saibo) [JAXA] is a multi-purpose rack consisting of two main parts, the Clean Bench (CB) and Cell Biology Experiment Facility (CBEF). The primary purpose of the Saibo Rack is to support cell culture, plant culture and mouse projects across a range of life and biological sciences. The CB is a sterilized glovebox equipped with a phase contrast micro- scope. The microscope has different modes: Bright-Field, Phase-Contrast and Fluorescence Microscope, and the objective lens can be switched among four magnification levels.

A second is a more sophisticated fluorescence microscope:

The JAXA Microscope Observation System (Fluorescence Microscope) [JAXA] is located in the MSPR or in the cabin area. It is an inverted fluorescence microscope, a Leica DMI 6000B. It has 6 different objective lenses, with a monochrome CCD camera. The microscope is equipped with an LED illumination unit and can perform time-lapse videomicroscopy. It also is equipped with a stage heater (up to 40°C) to enable cell culture observation. The Fluorescence Microscope is controlled and remotely commanded from the ground once samples are placed into it by the onboard crew. It has been used for biology (cultured cell and fish larva) and plant experiments onboard the ISS/Kibo.

A third is an optical microscope designed mainly for observing fluids, though it has been used for other purposes:

Fluids Integrated Rack (FIR) [NASA] is a multi-user fluid physics research facility designed to accommodate and image a wide variety of microgravity fluid experiments. [...] An additional component of the FIR that is itself considered a multipurpose facility is the Light Microscopy Module (LMM) [NASA], a ground-controlled, automated microscope that allows flexible imaging (bright field, dark field, phase contrast, etc.) for physical as well as biological experiments.

Source: International Space Station Facilities: Research in Space 2017 and Beyond

A confocal/3D scope launched in April 2018 may be the closest to what you are looking for:

Depending on the sample, Microscopy SpaceLab also offers selectable specialized techniques to improve specimen contrast, or highlight specific structures utilizing polarization, Differential Interference Contrast (DIC) or 3D capabilities in multiple illumination modes. Microscopy SpaceLab is equipped with 8 selectable objectives ranging in magnification from 2X-100X, 7 selectable laser excitation wavelengths and an array of dichroic and emission filters to accommodate a variety of fluorescence imaging options. Confocal functionality will be implemented with selectable laser illumination optics and pinhole system utilizing the same scientific camera sensor as the other operational modes, thus maintaining a compact form factor. In addition, confocal scanning to obtain 3D imaging and depth information is implemented utilizing HNu’s patented illumination and imaging operations that are much more amenable to compact integration within the system.

Two additional off-the-shelf scopes were added in July 2018:

The NanoRacks Microscopes facility includes commercial off-the-shelf optical and reflective microscopes. NanoRacks Microscopes utilize plug-and-play USB technology and allow crew members to analyze and digitally transfer images of International Space Station (ISS) on-orbit samples.

All of the ISS scopes have used imaging sensors. None use charged particles. The Microscopy SpaceLab is the only scanning scope. Though they are all fairly advanced optical microscopes, none would be considered an electron microscope.

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    $\begingroup$ Very nice summary! The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) (1, 2) is mentioned in this answer. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 4:35
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    $\begingroup$ This comment mentions that the Mars Exploration Rover also had a microscopic imager. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 4:44
  • $\begingroup$ Since the situation has changed I've had to un-accept, but this is still a valuable answer. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 0:13

The answer to this question has changed a few days ago. Cygnus NG-13 brought a Voxa Mochii suitcase-sized scanning electron microscope to the ISS in February 2020.

See also GeekWire's From the garage to the space station: Voxa’s Mochii electron microscope will be flying high

Having an electron microscope aboard the station — and having it hooked up for remote access so that earthbound experts could review the data — would streamline such sleuthing. It could also open up new frontiers in space science and engineering, such as monitoring the space station’s air quality, analyzing biological samples, doing on-the-spot quality control for advanced materials or protein crystals made on the space station, and making use of resources on the moon and Mars.

The Mochii scope has a built in PVD metal coater (for nonconductive specimens) and Electron Dispersive Spectroscopy capabilities.

Additionally, NASA poster: https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2019/eposter/3238.pdf

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    $\begingroup$ Yay! it's about time there's a SEM in space! However I'm baffled about where they put it. Depending on energy and column length SEMs need a fairly good vacuum. With all the vacuum available in space they decided to install this one within the few cubic meters of the most humid dirty air they could find! ;-) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ This one has a very small column, and I think it's got it's own turbo-pump package. I suspect they don't want to vent air into space with every evacuation. $\endgroup$
    – ikrase
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 0:15
  • $\begingroup$ I've just asked Would a small electron microscope in a cubesat work well in space at 400 km? I'm hoping the environment at 400 km will have just enough gas or free ions that it will help with sample charging. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ Since it is so notable, I think you can also add this as a new answer to Microscopes in space?. Just a sentence or two and point back to this answer to avoid duplication. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 1:11

Both the Rosetta mission, and the Mars Phoenix Lander had Atomic Force Microscopes aboard. These use a very sharp tip and sensitive force measurement to detect the interaction between the tip and the surface of the desired object. They generally fall into the SPM category you mentioned. The Rosetta instrument was used to examine comet and intrasolar dust, and the Phoenix instrument was used to examine Martian dust. More information about the Rosetta instrument (named MIDAS) is available at this question.

The advantage of AFMs is that they are quite small, and require little power (MIDAS used 7.4W).

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer! As mentioned elsewhere I find this pretty amazing, bordering on astounding. Scanning beams have almost no moving parts, but an automated AFM may have several seemingly delicate ones. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ Oh it seems to be a typo in my question. I probably meant to have both SIMS (secondary ion mass spectrometry) and SPM (scanning probe microscopy) so I've edit accordingly there and here. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 23:53

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