NASA's Perseverance rover is learning Navajo as it explores Mars

The exact landing site of the Mars Perseverance rover wasn't just a triumph of NASA engineering but a key deciding factor as to how the terrain the six-wheeled science platform explores is named, the space agency has revealed. NASA will use Navajo words for features of scientific interest, it says, starting with "Máaz" – which as you may have guessed is the Navajo word for "Mars" – though the decision wasn't final until Perseverance finished its breathtaking descent.

That descent through Mars' atmosphere and to the surface of the red planet was a complex, multi-stage affair. Perseverance first shed speed in the upper atmosphere, before deploying a vast parachute to further slow. Once that was jettisoned, the rover was flown closer to the ground on a rocket-powered sled, before being lowered the final distance on NASA's innovative Sky Crane.

The video of that descent, captured with cameras mounted on the rover and elsewhere, remains one of the most incredible elements of Perseverance's journey. However, while NASA had a good idea of whereabouts in Jezero Crater it wanted the rover to touch down, the exact location was effectively up to Perseverance itself. Part of the descent process involved doing last-minute scans of the Mars surface to find a safe spot without risk of boulders, holes, or other hazards.

Before the rover launched back in 2020, the Perseverance team had divided the landing site into a grid of quadrangles, each roughly 1 square mile in size. Each was named after national parks and preserves on Earth that showed similar geology.

The quadrangle that the rover touched down with was named for Arizona's Canyon de Chelly National Monument, or Tséyi' in Navajo. Located in the heart of the Navajo Nation, it prompted the team to work with a Navajo engineer, Aaron Yazzie, at the Jet Propulsion Lab, to collaborate on developing a list of names for the new features Perseverance will explore.

"Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer, and their advisors made a list of words in the Navajo language available to the rover's team," NASA explains. "Some terms were inspired by the terrain imaged by Perseverance at its landing site. For example, one suggestion was "tséwózí bee hazhmeezh," or "rolling rows of pebbles, like waves." Yazzie added suggestions like "strength" ("bidziil") and "respect" ("hoł nilį́") to the list. Perseverance itself was translated to "Ha'ahóni.""

The initial list comprises 50 different names, with the potential for more to be added later as Perseverance's mission continues. While it's an opportunity for the rest of the JPL team to learn terms from the Navajo language, it'll also require educating the rover itself, NASA points out. That'll include translating the names for Perseverance's systems, using English letters in the process since the rover can't handle special characters or punctuation.

As for the landing site itself, NASA named it Octavia E. Butler Landing, after the iconic science-fiction author.