The dynamics of quantized magnetic vortices and their pinning by materials defects determine electromagnetic properties of superconductors, particularly their ability to carry non-dissipative currents. Despite recent advances in the understanding of the complex physics of vortex matter, the behavior of vortices driven by current through a multi-scale potential of the actual materials defects is still not well understood, mostly due to the scarcity of appropriate experimental tools capable of tracing vortex trajectories on nanometer scales. Using a novel scanning superconducting quantum interference microscope we report here an investigation of controlled dynamics of vortices in lead films with sub-Angstrom spatial resolution and unprecedented sensitivity. We measured, for the first time, the fundamental dependence of the elementary pinning force of multiple defects on the vortex displacement, revealing a far more complex behavior than has previously been recognized, including striking spring softening and broken-spring depinning, as well as spontaneous hysteretic switching between cellular vortex trajectories. Our results indicate the importance of thermal fluctuations even at 4.2 K and of the vital role of ripples in the pinning potential, giving new insights into the mechanisms of magnetic relaxation and electromagnetic response of superconductors.
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