NASA is highlighting the Navajo (Diné) language on Mars

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

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.

Before launch, Perseverance’s team divided the Jezero Crater landing site into a grid of quadrangles, or “quads,” that are roughly 1 square mile (2.6 square kilometers) in size. The team decided to name these quads after national parks and preserves on Earth with similar geology. Perseverance touched down in the quad named for 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. 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.

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. For example, 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.”

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in the Solar System, being larger than only Mercury. In English, Mars carries the name of the Roman god of war and is often referred to as the "Red Planet. The latter refers to the effect of the iron oxide prevalent on Mars's surface, which gives it a reddish appearance distinctive among the astronomical bodies visible to the naked eye.

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