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Perseverance Rover Will Be Naming Mars Landmarks In The Navajo Language

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been a month since the Mars rover Perseverance landed on the Red Planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SWATI MOHAN: Touchdown confirmed. Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin taking the signs of past life.

CHANG: And since then, it's literally been exploring uncharted territory, which leaves NASA with the issue of naming the places where Perseverance goes.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, NASA is not entirely flying blind here. It had already split the map into sectors of about one square mile, each named after national parks around the world. Perseverance landed in the area named after Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which is 50 miles from where NASA mechanical engineer Aaron Yazzie grew up in Arizona.

AARON YAZZIE: It started out as sort of a chance landing, like, literally.

KELLY: Canyon de Chelly lies in the middle of the Navajo Nation. So NASA decided to use Navajo words to name the nearby rocks and features, and it just so happens, Aaron Yazzie - he's a member of the Navajo Nation.

YAZZIE: I am not a fluent speaker. I am very familiar with the language, and I grew up with it in my household. My parents speak it. It was actually my parents' first language. But I've always spoken English, and I learned Navajo second. With this whole new effort, I've been relearning my language too, which is really cool.

CHANG: Yazzie worked with Navajo officials to come up with a list of potential names.

YAZZIE: We translated Perseverance to Ha'ahoni.

CHANG: Some of the Navajo words are quite literal.

YAZZIE: Mountain - dzil; red rock - tse lichii.

CHANG: Others were chosen more for their descriptive qualities.

YAZZIE: Diligent is yeigo; happiness - hozho; beautiful - nizhoni.

CHANG: And of course Mars translates to Maaz. They gave that name to the first rock Perseverance will be studying.

KELLY: Aaron Yazzie hopes this project can get more Native youth excited about science.

YAZZIE: Watching this entire collaboration unfold was just so exciting for me. I'm one of very few engineers that are Native American in the world, you know? There's not a very strong representation of Native Americans in the STEM fields, and we're working on growing that. And so it feels like this is an overlap of my two worlds happening right now, and it's just a beautiful way to see it happen.

KELLY: Yazzie also notes the number of Navajo speakers has rapidly declined in recent years, and he's hoping this project can help the language persevere on Earth or other planets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.