Painting a Mars Rover Is Even More Complicated Than You’d Think

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It’s like painting a car, if the car was going into space.

Aesthetics aren’t exactly a priority for any Mars rover, but that doesn’t mean a paint job isn’t crucial to success. Beyond offering a clean, minimal look, white paint can create an important reflective surface for any space-bound object. The Mars 2020 rover recently got its paint job, and that process is a microcosm for the level of detail that’s required for each and every part. There are no paint shops on Mars, after all.

The size of an SUV, the six-wheeled nuclear-powered rover, does not have a name yet. But but before its chassis can be painted, it must be built. This process is painstakingly slow. Comprised of 20 pieces of machined aluminum, the chassis’s connective holes were all originally handmade. Then, each hole was slightly expanded with a bit. After that, a final drilling process can commence.

“We drill holes in steps because it gives us the best chance to catch any errors, stresses the metal less, and the increments make it easier to drill by hand,” says Stephen Pakbaz, lead engineer for the Mars 2020 chassis assembly in a press statement. “It’s detailed work and at times can be tedious, but everyone knows what is at stake.”

This is repeated over 3,000 times and does not count rivet and fastener applications. The whole chassis, Pakbaz says, calls for 610 rivets, 730 washers, 644 nuts and 964 mechanical fasteners. The entire assembly required 5,000 hours.

The carefully built chassis wasn’t ready for painting, though. Like any vehicle’s paint job, an outline had to be created of where and where not to paint.

“Any good paint job is preceded by a great tape job,” says lead painter John Campanella. “I wouldn’t freestyle flames on a Camaro, and we sure don’t freestyle Mars rovers.”

The rover has a few complications beyond those of a Camaro or old-school Chevy Impala. Most notably, Earthbound cars do not have hypersensitive scientific instruments that will need to have bare metal in order to get the highest degree of accuracy. So even the taping and cutting process stress levels of accuracy typically unseen in the everyday.

NASA MARS rover 2020 paint job

“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. “But whereas you would probably tear off a strip with your hands and eyeball it onto the wall you wanted to paint in your house, we use a computer-controlled cutter to make sure each piece is exactly the size and shape we want it to be.”

Similarly, there are no special primers or paints used for rovers. While the paints were hardware store variety, that doesn’t mean they’re not tough—they have to withstand rigorous testing to endure the jolts, vibrations, UV rays and what NASA’s press release calls the “indignities of a trip to Mars.”

“You can’t think about where it’s going or how much history it can make,” says Campanella of the process. “We use the same paint guns on the same setting and fire them from the same distance and move at the same speed each and every time.”

Because of its particularly harsh travel destination, the paint job has to be baked in a vacuum chamber after the initial application.

“Cooking the chassis at 230°F (110°C) 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 Pakbaz. “Since Mars 2020 is an astrobiology mission, ensuring Mars samples have not been contaminated is paramount. Baking the rover goes a long way to making that possible.”

And after all that, the paint chassis is finally painted. It may not be the simplest way to apply paint, but it’s what will last through some of the harshest environments this side of the asteroid belt.

“It may not have flames or racing stripes,” Campanella says, “but it still looks beautiful.”

Source: NASA

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