How NASA paints its vehicles for space


  • NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to land on the red planet on February 18, 2021.
  • Painting a vehicle for an alien world is a lot different from painting a car — the paint is made to endure the extreme temperatures of Mars.
  • Watch the video above to learn how NASA paints all of its Mars rovers.
  • WATCH NEXT: Why it’s so difficult to land a spacecraft on Mars

Following is a transcript of the video. 

Narrator: Getting one of NASA’s vehicles into space takes engineering, aerodynamics, lots of science, and a special paint job. This is NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

It’s scheduled to land on the red planet on February 18, 2021. NASA paints all of its Mars rovers, and Mars 2020 is no exception.

But painting a vehicle for an alien world is a lot different from painting a car. For starters, the process is all done by hand. The Mars 2020 rover started as a pile of aluminum panels that took four months and over 5,000 hours to assemble. It’ll take another three to four months to turn the frame, also known as the chassis, into a completed rover.

That’s where the paint job comes in. The rover beings as a shiny aluminum that is then painted white to reflect sunlight and help the rover from overheating. Unlike the paint we put on cars, this paint is far more durable. It’s made to endure the extreme temperatures of Mars, which can range from 70 degrees Fahrenheit, 20 degrees Celsius, near the equator, to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit, minus 73 degrees Celsius. In fact, you can still see sections of white paint on NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been on Mars since 2012.

Many areas on the chassis need to be painted, while other parts won’t have any paint at all. These areas usually have electronic boxes, wiring, or sensitive scientific instruments. To protect them during the process, these areas are carefully masked with tape. Emphasis on carefully. Instead of just ripping off a piece of tape, it is precisely measured and cut by a computer.

Then the rover is sanded to scuff the shiny, smooth aluminum which helps the paint adhere better. As for the paint, it is specifically formulated to withstand all the difficulties of getting to Mars. Like the shaky ride during launch and landing, as well as dust storms on Mars. For the paint to work effectively, it has to be the right thickness and evenly applied. Once the paint is applied, NASA has to make sure the rover’s surface can’t absorb anything like water or other chemicals.

So they bake it.

This happens in large, thermal vacuum chambers. The chassis is cooked in the vacuum for three days at 230 degrees Fahrenheit, 110 degrees Celsius. The rover is then covered with two bags to protect it and transported to an air lock room. This room preps the rover to go from the dirty outside to the clean inside of the assembly facility. The outer bag is removed and the clean, interior bag is left on for the rover to enter. Once the inner bag is removed, final assembly of the rover can begin.

All the components that control the rover, along with all its instruments, will go inside the chassis, forming the foundation for the entire rover. Who knew painting could also count as rocket science? See you in 2021, Mars.

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