The Sample Analysis at Mars tool is called SAM. SAM is made up of three different instruments that search for and measure organic chemicals and light elements that are important ingredients potentially associated with life.

Tech Specs

Main Job
Identify a wide range of organic (carbon-containing) compounds.
Inside the rover body, on the front end of the rover.
A box about the size of a microwave oven.
About 40 kilograms.
Components Gas Chromatograph:
Separates gases to aid in identifying them

Mass Spectrometer:
Detecting key elements necessary for life (nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur, oxygen and carbon)

Tunable Laser Spectrometer:
Detecting water vapor and understanding the history of Mars atmosphere or determining whether methane, if found, is produced by life or geologic processes

Sample Manipulation System:
Wheel of 74 small cups for samples (9 cups contain calibration samples; 9 filled with chemical solvents for lower-temperature wet chemistry experiments, and 59 quartz cups that are small ovens for heating the powdered samples to extract gases)

Detects less than one part-per-billion of an organic compound

Heat most rock samples to about 1,000 degrees Celsius (about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) to extract gases for analysis

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite

Sample Analysis at Mars for Curiosity
Sample Analysis at Mars for Curiosity: The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., will analyze samples of material collected by the rover's arm.
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The Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite takes up more than half the science payload onboard the Mars Science Laboratory rover. SAM features chemical equipment found in many scientific laboratories on Earth. Provided by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, SAM searches for compounds of the element carbon, including methane, that are associated with life and explores ways in which they are generated and destroyed in the Martian ecosphere.

Actually a suite of three instruments, including a mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, and tunable laser spectrometer, SAM also looks for and measures the abundances of other light elements associated with life, such as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

Sample Analysis at Mars Instrument, Side Panels Off (Annotated)
Sample Analysis at Mars Instrument, Side Panels Off (Annotated): An instrument suite that will analyze the chemical ingredients in samples of Martian atmosphere, rocks and soil during the mission of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, is shown here during assembly at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., in 2010.
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As samples of drilled rock or scooped soil are heated within SAM, components within them vaporize and are piped to the different instruments. The mass spectrometer separates elements and compounds by mass for identification and measurement. The gas chromatograph separates the gases into various components for analysis. The laser spectrometer measures the abundance of various isotopes of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in atmospheric gases such as methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide.

Because these compounds are essential to life as we know it, understanding their relative abundances is essential for evaluating whether Mars could have supported life in the past or present.

SAM Instrument at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
SAM Instrument at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission will study chemistry of rocks, soil and air as the mission's rover, Curiosity, investigates Gale Crater on Mars. Credit: NASA
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