IX - The Ten Instruments Mars Rover Curiosity Carries : The Sample Analysis at Mars Instrument
The Sample Analysis at Mars Instrument
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Goddard Space Flight Center
The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument is the technology behemoth of the Mars Rover Curiosity mission. A suite of three instruments, it makes up more than half of the scientific payload of Curiosity, and focuses on striking gold by finding evidence of life on Mars. The mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, and tunable laser spectrometer inside can find compounds of carbon, such as methane, while also searching for lighter elements that might also indicate life, like hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.
The mass spectrometer will separate elements by mass, the gas chromatograph will vaporize samples using heat to analyze them, and the laser spectrometer will measure how much of various isotopes are in the samples. Accurate to within 10 parts per thousand, it may be the best chance Curiosity has of discovering life--past or present.