John Campanella does all kinds of custom paint jobs in his spare time, airbrushing designs on cars, semis, motorcycles, and guitars. But by day, he works in the paint shop of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, applying paint to components for Pathfinder, Juno, Cassini, and Deep Impact, among other NASA missions.
“I think my paint is just about everywhere in the solar system,” Campanella says.
His team just finished painting the chassis for the Mars 2020 rover, which will be a nuclear-powered six-wheel drive machine about the size of an SUV. JPL features this under-appreciated process in a new video.
It took engineers and technicians 5,000 hours to assemble the chassis. Once it was in Campanella’s shop, his team first had to carefully apply more than 600 pieces of masking tape, since there are so many parts of the chassis where the paint can’t be applied. It’s the same tape anyone can buy in their local hardware store, except instead of tearing off pieces by hand, the JPL paint team uses a computer controlled cutter so that each piece is tailored to be just the right size and shape. They also applied over 130 temporary sheet metal stencils to protect larger sections of the chassis, and then carefully sanded down the surface.
The tape might be mundane, but the primer and flat white paint used on the chassis is not. It has to be able to stick to aluminum (the material used for the chassis) and hardy enough to withstand UV rays, jolts, and vibrations—not to mention the extreme cold on Mars. And it can’t emit any organic compounds since those could interfere with all the delicate scientific equipment on board, not to mention contaminate any Martian samples the rover collects. That’s why the finished chassis was baked in a vacuum chamber for three days to harden the paint and bake out any contaminants.
The finished product is now in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, parked next to the cruise and descent stages of the rover. “It may not have flames or racing stripes, but it still looks beautiful,” says Campanella. The Mars 2020 mission should launch in July 2020 from Cape Canaveral, reaching Mars in February 2021.