Since its landing on the surface of Mars in mid-February, NASA’s Perseverance rover has been diligently documenting every detail and sending more than 7,000 images back to Earth. A common activity undertaken by surface missions is to assign nicknames to the various landmarks discovered by the rover; this provides the mission team with a common vocabulary with which to discuss their findings. The team for the Mars 2020 mission is working in conjunction with the Navajo Nation to name the various features and geological landmarks discovered on the Red Planet’s surface with words from the Navajo language.
Before the Perseverance rover launch, the team divided Jezero Crater—the landing site of the rover—into several quads, each about one square mile in size. Every area is named after national parks and other places on Earth with similar geological features. The place where Perseverance first touched down was in a quad named after Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument—called Tséyi’ in Navajo—which lies in the heart of the Navajo Nation.
Working with a Navajo engineer named Aaron Yazzie on the Perseverance team, the mission was able to acquire the Navajo Nation’s permission to collaborate. Compiling a list of over 50 Navajo words to start with, they will continue to work with the Navajo Nation as the rover explores more of the planet’s surface. The current list includes words like tsé łichíí, meaning red rock; hahóóts’aa’, which means crater; séítah, which translates to amongst the sand; and yéigo, the Navajo word for diligence. The first focus of the mission is a rock discovered by the rover, which they subsequently named Máaz—the Navajo word for Mars.
“The partnership that the Nez-Lizer Administration has built with NASA will help to revitalize our Navajo language,” says 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.”