Story at a glance

  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is using the Navajo language to name discoveries on Mars during its latest mission.
  • The Navajo language is spoken primarily in the Southwestern United States, especially on the Navajo Nation reservation, by more than 160,000 speakers.
  • The Perseverance rover is studying a rock named “Máaz,” the Navajo word for “Mars,” as its first project.

The Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona is located on Navajo Nation land. To members of the tribe, its name is simply "Tseyi." So when the Perseverance rover landed on a quadrant in Mars that the space agency had named for the monument, it only made sense for the NASA team to adopt a Navajo name for its discoveries. 


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“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,” Aaron Yazzie, a Navajo engineer at NASA, said in a release

With his help, NASA partnered with the Navajo Nation, first teaching their own engineers and later the Perseverance rover itself, translating Navajo words into English letters, although without special characters or punctuation. 

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


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This isn’t the first time the United States government has used the Navajo language, Nez noted in a Tweet, calling back to the Navajo code talkers who served in the Marine Corps during world wars. The Perseverance team is working off of a list of 50 suggested names that include “tséwózí bee hazhmeezh,” meaning “rolling rows of pebbles, like waves,”  “bidziil,” meaning strength, and “hoł nilį́,” meaning respect. 

“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 said in the  release. 


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Published on Mar 15, 2021