As NASA's Perseverance rover starts to discover and identify interesting new features on the surface of Mars, the team back on Earth will need to start naming them — and they've chosen to honor the Navajo Nation first.
Since landing on the surface of the red planet on February 18, the Perseverance rover has sent back some 7,000 images, moved its seven-foot-long robot arm, undergone a post-landing software upgrade and taken a short test drive. It is just the beginning of its long journey to hunt for signs of ancient life.
The rover team has now named a rock, the first scientific focus of the rover, "Máaz," the Navajo word for "Mars." Working with the Navajo Nation, the team will continue naming new features in the Navajo language, NASA said in a statement Thursday.
It's common for mission teams to use nicknames for landmarks in order to keep track of various rocks, soils and other interesting geologic features. Previous teams have used names of geologic features on Earth, as well as people and places significant to the mission.
The International Astronomical Union designates official names for these features, but the nicknames are used by mission teams at NASA.
The Jezero Crater, where Perseverance landed, has been divided by the team into one-square-mile quadrangles, named after national parks and preserves on Earth with similar features. The spot where the rover landed has been named "Tséyi," for Arizona's Canyon de Chelly National Monument, located in the heart of Navajo Nation.
"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."
The Perseverance team has a list of 50 names to start with for future uncovered terrain. The team will continue to work with the Navajo Nation on more names as the rover further explores the red planet.
Aaron Yazzie, a Navajo engineer who works on the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is overseeing the collaboration between mission scientists and the Navajo Nation.
"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.
Yazzie and other JPL engineers are working to teach Perseverance the unique Navajo language, so it can recognize landmarks. For now, they use the closest English equivalents.
"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."
Scientists on the team say that they welcome the chance to learn Navajo words and their meaning.
"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," said Perseverance Deputy Project Scientist Katie Stack Morgan of JPL.