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The team behind NASA’s Perseverance rover has been naming “features of scientific interest” with words in the Navajo language, NASA said Thursday. The team has been collaborating with the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President. The first scientific focus of NASA’s Perseverance rover is a rock named “Máaz” – the Navajo word for “Mars.”

“Surface missions assign nicknames to landmarks to provide the mission’s team members, which number in the thousands, a common way to refer to rocks, soils, and other geologic features of interest. Previous rover teams have named features after regions of geologic interest on Earth as well as people and places related to expeditions. Although the International Astronomical Union designates official names for planetary features, these informal names are used as reference points by the team,” NASA said in a statement.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer, and their advisors made a list of words in the Navajo language available to the rover’s team. Some terms were inspired by the terrain imaged by Perseverance at its landing site. Mission scientists worked with a Navajo (or Diné) engineer on the team, Aaron Yazzie of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, to seek the Navajo Nation’s permission and collaboration in naming new features on Mars, the statement said. 

mars roverThe Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover. (Credit: mars.nasa.gov)

One suggestion was “tséwózí bee hazhmeezh,” or “rolling rows of pebbles, like waves.” Yazzie added suggestions like “strength” (“bidziil”) and “respect” (“hoł nilį́”) to the list. Perseverance itself was translated to “Ha’ahóni.”

“The partnership that the Nez-Lizer Administration has built with NASA will help to revitalize our Navajo language,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. “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.”

Before the launch, the Perseverance team divided the Jezero Crater landing site into a grid of quadrangles (or “quads”) about one square mile in size and decided to name the quads after national parks and preserves on Earth with similar geology. The rover touched down in the quad named after Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Tséyi’ in Navajo), in the heart of the Navajo Nation. The team’s plan was to compile a list of names inspired by each quad’s national park that could be used to name features observed by Perseverance. 

“It's very important for us to understand where we came from, and our origins,” Yazzie said in the NASA statement. 

“When I'm doing this work for NASA, it feels like a similar goal, like I'm trying to find the origins of a rocky planet and understand how life might have formed over billions of years ago,” Yazzie told Native News Online in February when the rover landed on Mars.

“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 a statement

But for Perseverance to recognize landmarks that have been labeled in Navajo, it has to be “taught” the language. The accent marks used in the English alphabet to convey the unique intonation of the Navajo language cannot be read by the computer languages Perseverance uses. Yazzie noted that while they work hard to come up with translations that best resemble Navajo spellings, the team will use English letters without special characters or punctuation to represent Navajo words.

aaron yazzieNASA mechanical engineer Aaron Yazzie (Diné). Yazzie works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Courtesy photo.

“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,” 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.”

The Perseverance team has a list of 50 names to start with. The team will work with the Navajo Nation on more names in the future as the rover continues to explore.

Scientists on the team have embraced the opportunity to learn Navajo words and their meaning, said Perseverance Deputy Project Scientist Katie Stack Morgan of JPL. “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,” Stack Morgan said.

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

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