• January 28, 2023

NASA Uses Navajo Language to Name Features on Mars : NPR

Called “Máaz” (the Navajo word for “Mars”), this rock is the first feature of scientific interest examined by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. NASA / JPL-Caltech hide caption

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NASA / JPL-Caltech

Called “Máaz” (the Navajo word for “Mars”), this rock is the first feature of scientific interest examined by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

One of the newest Martians a NASA robot named Perseverance, has put on, switched on and came to work. During its mission, Perseverance will roam around a small crater – the location of a possible ancient lake – and meander through an ancient river delta looking for biosignatures, or Evidence of life.

But like anywhere it’s new and remote, it’s easy to turn around on Mars. The landscape is huge and the features can be very similar to each other. Therefore, the teams of scientists working on the mission need to know what is where on the same page.

This is 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 reached out to a Navajo engineer on the team, Aaron Yazzie of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, for permission from the Navajo nation to use their language to identify some points of interest.

The tribe was happy to work with them. Before starting, the mission team divided the main area into sections of about a square mile each. They then looked for national parks and nature reserves here on earth that had a similar geology to the area on Mars and named them accordingly. Perseverance landed in Tséyi, which is the Navajo word for the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona in the heart of the Navajo nation.

It is not the first time that the US government has used Navajo for ambitious projects. During World War II, around 400 Navajo speakers broadcast thousands of radio messages in the most effective manner code based on their language: warplanes became hummingbirds, submarines became iron fish.

The language is still spoken by the Navajo tribes, a people who call themselves Diné, but it is becoming extinct. “Using our Navajo language in the Perseverance mission will inspire more young Navajo people to understand the importance of learning our language. Our words were used to win World War II and now we are helping the planet Mars to navigate and learn more about it, “Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.

At the moment Perseverance is working on learning more about a large rock called “Máaz” – Navajo for “Mars”. It’s just one of many landmarks according to NASAYazzie said he had suggestions like “strength” (“bidziil”) and “respect” (“hoł nilį́” added) “) to the list.

However, learning a new language can be difficult even for robots. Perserverence’s computers don’t understand accented characters, so the scientists had to adapt. Yazzie says that while the team works hard to create translations that best resemble Navajo spellings, they use English letters with no special characters or punctuation to represent Navajo words as needed.

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