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Mapping Máaz: NASA Uses Navajo Language to Name Features on Mars NASA/JPL-Caltech SPACE

One of the newest Martians, a NASA robot named Perseverance, has touched down, powered up, and gotten to work. Over the course of its mission, Perseverance will prowl around a small crater — the site of a possible ancient lake — and meander through what might be an old river delta, searching for biosignatures, or evidence of life.

But like anywhere new and remote, it’s easy to get turned around on Mars. The landscape is vast and features can look really similar to one another, so the teams of scientists working on the mission needed to get on the same page about what is where.

That’s where the Navajo language comes in. Although the International Astronomical Union assigns the official names for planetary features, surface mission teams use nicknames for smaller landmarks. The Perseverance team turned a Navajo engineer on the team, Aaron Yazzie of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, to get permission from the Navajo Nation to use their language to name some points of interest.

The tribe was happy to collaborate. Before launch, the mission team divided the primary area into sections of about a square mile each. They then looked for national parks and preserves here on Earth that had a similar geology to the area on Mars, and named them accordingly. Perseverance touched down in Tséyi, which corresponds to the Navajo word for the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, right in the heart of the Navajo Nation.