NASA works with Navajo Nation to name new features discovered on Mars
© NASA/JPL-Caltech

In collaboration with leaders of the Navajo Nation, the nation’s largest Indian reservation, NASA is naming items of scientific interest discovered on Mars as part of its Perseverance rover’s ongoing mission with words from the Navajo language.

The space agency announced this month that it began naming features discovered using the rover, which landed on the Mars Jezero Crater last month, with words from the language after getting permission from Navajo leaders in addition to a list of 50 names approved names so far. 

The agency said the 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.”

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“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,” it added.

The Perseverance team named a rock found on the planet, which the space agency said was its first “scientific focus” for the mission, “Máaz,” which translates to “Mars” in English.

The agency team also divided Jezero Crater ahead of the launch into quadrangles, which it noted was about 1 square mile in size, and said the quad where the Perseverance rover landed was named “Tséyi,” for the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona in “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,’ the agency said.

The agency said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer worked with their advisors to produce a list of words from the language to provide the team with. 

Nez said in a statement that the “partnership that the Nez-Lizer Administration has built with NASA will help to revitalize our Navajo language.”

“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,” he continued.

Aaron Yazzie, a Navajo engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California that worked with mission scientists to obtain permission from the Navajo Nation for the effort, said the “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.”

“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 also said.