New NASA Project Paints the Mars 2020 Rover

JPL mechanical technician Eddie Castro uses a paint meter to measure the paint thickness on the Mars 2020 rover chassis. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Is there life on Mars? Answering this question is one of the top scientific priorities for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP). As part of its long-term mission to explore the Red Planet for signs of past microbial life, MEP will launch the Mars 2020 rover by July or August 2020. When the rover lands on Mars sometime in February 2021, the planet’s inhabitants—assuming any exist—will bear witness to a state-of-the-art vehicle with an immaculate paint and protective coatings job from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) (Pasadena, California, USA).

Assembling the Mars 2020 rover and preparing it for its outer space sojourn was a momentous undertaking. Over a four-month period between mid-April to mid-August 2018, Mars 2020 engineers and technicians put together the rover chassis using 610 rivets, 730 washers, 644 nuts, and 964 mechanical fasteners, along with over 3,000 hole drillings.

As with any professional paint job, preparing the surface is key. This prep work began on August 1 when masking tape was applied to certain parts of the Mars rover, including electronics boxes and wiring harnesses, where adding paint could compromise its functions. A computer-controlled cutter was used to create over 600 distinct pieces of masking tape of varying shapes and sizes. While the process for preparing and applying the masking tape pieces was highly precise, the tape itself was nothing special. "You can find the masking tape we used on 2020 in just about any hardware store," says Ryan van Schilifgaarde, a support engineer for Mars 2020 assembly.

With five Mars 2020 engineers logging 500 hours on prep work, the rover was ready to be sent to the JPL paint shop on August 6. The three-person paint team on the Mars 2020 project was led by John Campanella, a longtime painter with JPL who has worked on some of NASA’s most high-profile spacecrafts. First, they abraded the rover’s surface with sand paper so that the paint would adhere better, as well as prevent potential corrosion or oxidation. From there, Campanella’s team tackled the painting project in stages: first, they painted the top deck, then waited for the paint to cure before working on the sides, and finally finished painting the front and back while also sanding the rover and cleaning up afterwards.

As opposed to the masking tape used in the prep phase of the project, the primer and paint used on the Mars 2020 rover could hardly be found in “just about any hardware store.” In fact, not only did these coatings have to be able to adhere to aluminum, they also had to be durable enough to withstand the jolts and vibrations of outer space travel and the coldness of the Martian surface. To ensure that the rover would be ready for space travel, NASA’s Quality Assurance division evaluated the effectiveness of the JPL paint job. The paint team passed the evaluation with flying colors.

On August 14, the Mars 2020 rover chassis was transported to a vacuum chamber to “bake” at 230 °F (110 °C) for three days. The purpose of “cooking” the chassis is to harden the paint and remove contaminants that could be released while the rover is in space. Six days later, on August 20, the chassis was removed from the vacuum chamber and sent back to JPL for final painting touch-ups. The project was finally completed on September 5, by which point Campanella and his team could take pride in a job well done. 

"When we are in the paint room, it is all about business," says Campanella. "But now that our job is done, I wanted to make sure they took a moment to let it sink in that they are part of a dedicated team of professionals working on a historic mission of exploration."

For a more detailed look at the preparation process for the Mars 2020 rover, read “Painting Cars for Mars” on NASA’s Mars Exploration Program website or view JPL’s YouTube page.

Source: MIT News,