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NASA honors Navajo language on Mars with Perseverance rover rock names

Canyon de Chelly National Monument ("Tséyi" in Navajo) in Arizona, which is located in the heart of Navajo Nation land. This name and other names in the Navajo language are being used to name features on the surface of Mars with NASA's latest Mars mission.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument ("Tséyi" in Navajo) in Arizona, which is located in the heart of Navajo Nation land. This name and other names in the Navajo language are being used to name features on the surface of Mars with NASA's latest Mars mission. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA is highlighting the Navajo language with its latest Mars mission. 

After landing successfully on the Red Planet Feb. 18, NASA's Perseverance rover is exploring, focusing its sights on a rock named "Máaz," the Navajo word for "Mars." The team behind the rover is in collaboration with the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President, and together they have been naming different features on the Martian surface using words in the Navajo language.

Mission scientists at NASA worked with Navajo (or Diné) team member Aaron Yazzie, an engineer for NASA's Mars 2020 mission at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to seek the Navajo Nation's permission and collaboration to name these features.  (Yazzie built the drill bits that the rover will use to collect samples on the planet.) Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer and their advisors created a list of Navajo language words that the teams at NASA would be able to use for the mission. 

"The partnership that the Nez-Lizer Administration has built with NASA will help to revitalize our Navajo language," President Nez said in a NASA statement. "We hope that having our language used in the Perseverance mission will inspire more of our young Navajo people to understand the importance and the significance of learning our language. Our words were used to help win World War II, and now we are helping to navigate and learn more about the planet Mars."

Related: NASA and Navajo Nation Partner in Understanding the Universe

By assigning names to local landmarks on Mars, it makes it easier for the mission team members to refer to features like rocks and soils. While the planetary features have formal names given by the International Astronomical Union, these informal names are used by the team. 

"This fateful landing on Mars has created a special opportunity to inspire Navajo youth not just through amazing scientific and engineering feats, but also through the inclusion of our language in such a meaningful way," Yazzie said in the NASA statement.

The Navajo Nation team provided the rover team with a list of 50 words that they could use to start with and will work together on more names as the rover explores more. This list includes names like "Máaz" and "tséwózí bee hazhmeezh" (which means "rolling rows of pebbles, like waves"), "bidziil" (which means "strength") and "hoł nilį́" (which means "respect"). The Navajo Nation team even included the Navajo language word for "Perseverance" which translates to "Ha'ahóni."

Related: What's in a name: Why NASA chose 'Perseverance' for its Mars rover

The rover was set to land in one of many quadrangles mapped out on a grid in Jezero Crater, with each "quad" measuring about 1 square mile (1.5 square kilometers) in size. They named these quads after natural areas on Earth with similar geological features, and Perseverance ended up touching down in the quad named after Arizona's Canyon de Chelly National Monument, or Tséyi in the Navajo language, which is in the heart of the Navajo Nation.

Now, for Perseverance to identify these features in the Navajo language, it has to learn the language. However, the limitations of the English language aren't able to fully express the intonation and accents in the Navajo words, so the team is working to come up with translations that better represent Navajo spellings. In the meantime, they are using English letters to represent the Navajo words. Mission scientists and team members are also taking this opportunity to learn Navajo words. 

"This partnership is encouraging the rover's science team to be more thoughtful about the names being considered for features on Mars — what they mean both geologically and to people on Earth," Perseverance Deputy Project Scientist Katie Stack Morgan of JPL said in the same statement. 

Space.com spoke with Yazzie at JPL on Feb. 18 immediately following the successful landing of the rover, which will search for signs of ancient life on Mars. "We are so excited, I am so relieved, this is such a great day," Yazzie told Space.com. 

"It feels unreal and it is unreal to be part of such a historic [mission]" Yazzie added. "It feels like we're contributing knowledge to the whole world on behalf of humanity. The possibility that we might find ancient microbial life on Mars, [it] would be a huge discovery and I'm so excited that I even have a small part in that discovery."

"We are very proud of one of our very own, Aaron Yazzie, who is playing a vital role in NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission," President Nez said. "We are excited for the NASA team and for Aaron and we see him as being a great role model who will inspire more interest in the STEM fields of study and hopefully inspire more of our young people to pursue STEM careers to make even greater impacts and contributions just as Aaron is doing. As the mission continues, we offer our prayers for continued success."

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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