Scanning electron microscopy has been employed as an imaging and measurement tool for more than 50 years and it continues as a primary tool in many research and manufacturing facilities across the world. A new challenger to this work is the helium ion microscope (HIM). The HIM is a new imaging and metrology technology. Essentially, substitution of the electron source with a helium ion source yields a tool visually similar in function to the scanning electron microscope, but very different in the fundamental imaging and measurement process. The imaged and measured signal originates differently than in the scanning electron microscope and that fact and its single atom source diameter may be able to push the obtainable resolution lower, provide greater depth-of-field and ultimately improve the metrology. Successful imaging and metrology with this instrument entails understanding and modeling of new ion beam/specimen interaction physics. As a new methodology, HIM is beginning to show promise and the abundance of potentially advantageous applications for nanometrology has yet to be fully exploited. This paper discusses some of the progress made at NIST in collaboration with IBM to understand the science behind this new technology. © 2011 IOP Publishing Ltd.