About Virtual Microscope

An overview, our backstory, the user guide and contacts


The Virtual Microscope for Earth Sciences project aims to engage, excite and educate students in schools and higher education as well as anyone interested in the geological building blocks of our planet and others.

Launched in 2012, the Virtual Microscope was a step change in the teaching of Earth Sciences. Opening up access to rock collections held in museums, universities and other institutions around the world introduced a new generation of students, teachers and enthusiasts to a wide range of geological samples. The online interface transformed a previously static virtual experience into a vivid, interactive exploration with much of the immersion of viewing sections.

The Virtual Microscope allows users to examine and explore minerals and microscopic features of rocks, helping them to develop classification and identification skills without the need for high-cost microscopes and thin section preparation facilities.

We try hard to ensure that the sample locations and other information are correct, so if you spot any errors, or have ideas for teaching resources, please help us to improve the Virtual Microscope by emailing us at .


Our biggest core Collection is called the UKVM and consists of more than 100 rocks from the United Kingdom (with a few from Ireland), digitized in 2012 as an open educational resource with funding from the JISC as part of their Content programme. Other Collections feature rocks collected by Charles Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle, meteorites that arrived from outer space, and moon rocks gathered by NASA astronauts. The Collections can be explored by location (on the interactive map) or using a text-based search with filters that query the metadata associated with each sample.

Virtual Microscope

Every rock sample features a virtual thin section so that you can study the mineral optical properties, grain size, shape and proportion, and also analyse the rock micro textures as if using a specialist polarising microscope. The user guide has full details of how to use the microscope.

plane-polarised light image of metamorphic rock with two red rotation point icons and a marginal graticule

Virtual hand specimen

Virtual hand specimens are available for many of the samples. Each hand specimen is a digital object that can be turned as if it was in your hand. The hand specimen can be examined as if using a hand lens, by zooming in to examine the minerals, grains or fossils visible on its surface. 

3D zoomable digital image of granite sample

Online geology map

The British Geological Survey (BGS) has kindly allowed us to link rocks in the UKVM to their online geology map of Great Britain so you can see the locations where the rocks were collected. The BGS map illustrates the geology of the local area and includes a key to the rock types. The map can be navigated and zoomed, and the transparency of the geological overlay can be varied.

Further information

If you would like to know more about the features you see in the Virtual Microscope, or how geologists identify and classify rocks and minerals, check out these resources.