Abstract Two-dimensional maps of the spatial distributions of excited and ionized sputtered copper atoms are presented for a millisecond pulsed argon glow discharge. These maps demonstrate the temporal as well as spatial dependence of different excitation and ionization processes over the pulse cycle. Transitions from the low energy electronic states for the atom, characterized by emission such as that at 324.75 nm (3.82→0.00 eV), dominate the plateau time regime at a distance of 2.5 mm from the cathode surface. These processes originate from the electron excitation of ground state copper atoms. Transitions from high-energy electronic states, such as that characterized by emission at 368.74 nm (7.16→3.82 eV), predominate during the afterpeak time regime at a distance of 5.0–6.0 mm from the cathode surface. This observation is consistent with the relaxation of highly excited copper atoms produced by electron recombination with copper ions during the afterpeak time regime. Analyses of afterpeak and plateau intensities for a series of copper emission lines indicate an electron excitation temperature equivalent to 5.78 eV at 0.8 torr and 1.5 W. Temporal profiles exhibit copper ion emission only during the plateau time regime.