A non-thermal plasma source (`plasma needle') generated under atmospheric pressure by means of radio-frequency excitation has been characterized. Plasma appears as a small (sub-mm) glow at the tip of a metal pin. It operates in helium, argon, nitrogen and mixtures of He with air. Electrical measurements show that plasma needle operates at relatively low voltages (200–500 V peak-to-peak) and the power consumption ranges from tens of milliwatts to at most a few watts. Electron-excitation, vibrational and rotational temperatures have been determined using optical emission spectroscopy. Excitation and vibration temperatures are close to each other, in the range 0.2–0.3 eV, rotational gas temperature is at most a few hundred K. At lowest power input the source has the highest excitation temperature while the gas remains at room temperature. We have demonstrated the non-aggressive nature of the plasma: it can be applied on organic materials, also in watery environment, without causing thermal/electric damage to the surface. Plasma needle will be used in the study of plasma interactions with living cells and tissues. At later stages, this research aims at performing fine, high-precision plasma surgery, like removal of (cancer) cells or cleaning of dental cavities.