Did you know that the average temperature of Mars is -50 degrees Fahrenheit, mid-latitude? This means that if anything were to land on its surface, it would need the capability to withstand the planet’s freezing temperatures and mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere. Thankfully, NASA created a rover that can withstand all of it.

The Perseverance rover officially landed on the surface of Mars on February 18th, 2021, after a seven-month journey across space. The Perseverance is now sending photos of the planet’s rocky and dusty surface for further documentation. However, the Perseverance and teams dedicated to the rover’s mission needed names to refer to common geological features such as rocks, dirt and other landmarks it may encounter. This sparked a collaboration between NASA and the Navajo Nation, thanks to a Navajo engineer, Aaron Yazzie, who specifically works with NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory team in Southern California.

NASA, after consulting with the Navajo Nation’s President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer, a group of advisors from the Navajo Nation provided 50 words that will be used to informally name certain geological landmarks that not only will the rover be able to identify to help it navigate across the landscape but also assist researchers in identifying areas around the “quad” or roughly the one square mile the rover landed in.

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Most of the words NASA is currently using from the Navajo language are specifically related to the terrain. For example, “Máaz,” is the word for Mars in Navajo. Other words such as “tsé łichíí” (red rock) or “séítah” (amongst the sand) may be on the list of geographical words used. Other words such as “bidzill” (strength) or “hoł nilį́” (respect) may also be used to describe the landscape.

This isn’t the first time the Navajo language has been used outside of regular speaking. Code talkers who were fluent in both their Native American language, such as Navajo and English, were used to send secret messages back and forth during World War II. President Jonathan Nez hopes that the partnership with NASA will revitalize the Navajo language and help Navajo youth “understand the importance and significance of learning the Navajo language.”

The Perseverance’s main mission objective on Mars is to study geology, past climate and biological life and prepare for future human exploration. With the inclusion of the Navajo language in such an important mission, Yazzie also hopes that it will also inspire Navajo youth “not just through amazing scientific and engineering feats, but also through [their] language in such a meaningful way.”

This article was originally published on 3/16/21

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Kathy Spangler
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