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High-Tech Paint Job Protects New Mars Rover

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

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The next iteration of the Mars rover—set to launch as part of the mission in July 2020—is undergoing prep work, and August saw the application of protective coatings to the chassis that can withstand both UV rays and the extreme cold of the desert planet.

John Campanella, a painter employed with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, led the team that just finished painting the Mars 2020 rover, which is made from aluminum. In the past, Campanella has worked on the first Mars rover Pathfinder, the Deep Impact mission, GRAIL, Juno and Cassini.

Protecting the Mars 2020 Rover

Engineers and technicians took more than 5,000 hours to assemble the rover’s chassis, and once that was complete, Campanella’s team custom cut and applied more than 600 pieces of masking tape to parts of the machine where paint could not be applied. (The masking tape used could be found “in just about any hardware store,” noted Ryan van Schilifgaarde, a support engineer for Mars 2020 assembly.)

Once the rover was moved to the JPL shop in early August, surface prep work could begin.

"To prevent any chance of corrosion or oxidation, the rule is, once you start sanding, you have six hours to complete everything—sanding, priming and painting,” Campanella said.

Due to how much space the rover took up in the painting room, Campanella worked with only two other members of his six-person team: Patrick Esquivias, a former aircraft mechanic; and their assistant Eddie Castro, a former house painter.

Coating Work          

Work was completed in stages. First, the top deck was painted and allowed to cure for a day. Then, the sides, front and back were finished in a similar fashion. Sanding and cleaning the detritus from the sanding consumed two of the six hours of available work time. Both paint and primer used underwent testing to be able to endure a trip to Mars, while also not outgassing organic compounds and other materials related to the mission’s experiments. Esquivias aimed to cover the chassis in a coating of paint between 4 and 6 mils thick; quality assurance later confirmed the work was good.

Esquivias first applied a layer of flat white, and once that had a chance to dry, he applied a second coat. This allowed for a stronger bond between layers. The process was done a third and final time. The color white was chosen for its reflective properties. 

In mid-August, the chassis was wrapped in an antistatic wrap and moved to where it could be baked for three days in a vacuum chamber to remove any contaminants.

"Cooking the chassis at 230 degrees Fahrenheit in a vacuum for three days not only hardens the paint, it literally bakes out contaminants from the paint that could possibly outgas in flight," said Stephen Pakbaz, lead engineer for the Mars 2020 chassis assembly.

After a few more inspections and touchups, the rover has been moved to JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility High Bay 1, where further prep work can continue. Once the chassis arrived, Campanella and his team took the time to look over their handiwork.

"It may not have flames or racing stripes," Campanella said, "but it still looks beautiful."

Mars 2020 is set to launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and is slated to land on Mars in February 2021.


Tagged categories: Coating Application; Coating Materials; NA; NASA; North America; Protective Coatings; UV resistance

Comment from Robert Crimmins, (10/16/2018, 6:36 PM)

What's the material?

Comment from David Zuskin, (10/18/2018, 6:57 PM)

After reading this article and the referenced article at I chuckled and thought "this is how every owner wants to believe their preservation project is being accomplished". Were it so.............

Comment from Erik Andreassen, (10/20/2018, 4:40 PM)

The item has been decribed and it's future destination. Is the coating system so secretive that the supplier cannot be mentioned?

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