Wednesday, 24 December 2008
How NORAD Tracks Santa
By Dave Demerjian December 23, 2008 | 5:05:28 PM
Santa Claus may be able to fly around the world in a sleigh, but even he can't cross North American airspace without NORAD knowing about it.
For more than 50 years, the joint American-Canadian air command that safeguards the continent against aerial attack has used its sophisticated tracking technology to follow Kris Kringle's journeyand provide real-time updates on his location to children worldwide.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command gave us a rundown of how it does the job.
The North Warning System, a network of 47 radars strung across the continent's northernmost frontier, tells NORAD when St. Nick takes off from the North Pole. Infrared satellites track the jolly old elf's flight path once he's airborne. "The satellites actually pick up an infrared signature from Rudolph's nose," Navy Lt. Desmond James told us.
Once Santa touches down, a little-known network of surveillance cameras called "Santa Cam" transmit images of St. Nick making deliveries. The global network went online 10 years ago, and NORAD officials swear it is used only on Christmas Eve. Four C-18 fighter jets escort Santa through Canada before handing the job over to F-16s as the sleigh enters American airspace. Canadian Air Force Capt. Matthew Maurice is among the pilots assigned to the job.
"He's looking forward to the responsibility of making sure Santa makes it through Canadian airspace," the pilot's mother told the Burlington Post. “He’s busy making preparations. They’re training on a daily basis to handle whatever comes up.”
Tracking Kris Kringle became part of NORAD's mission in 1955, when the organization was called the Continental Air Defense Command and Col. Harry Shoup was the man in charge. Sears-Roebuck had put an ad in the local paper listing Santa's phone number, but the number was misprinted. Instead of ringing the department store, it rang CONRAD's ops center. Shoup got the first call, and rather than being a Scrooge, he told the tyke, "Let me check the radar."
A tradition was born. (You can hear Shoup talk about the experience here.)
In the half century since, NORAD has expanded and updated the program, which provides updates in seven languages. "We added the online component ten years ago," James says. "And today, Google software outputs images from the Santa Cams, and Google Maps and Google Earth track his trajectory."
These days, kids can track Santa's progress online, by cellphone or Blackberry and even by Twitter. Volunteers have been doing most of the work for a few years now, and the whole thing is funded largely through corporate donations. Last year, more than 1,000 volunteers answered 94,743 phone calls and replied to 10,326 e-mails from kids around the world. Another 11 million people visited the noradsanta.org Web site.
Track Santa's progress by calling 1-877-HINORAD, sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by logging on to noradsanta.org. NORAD says its intelligence indicates Santa will be departing the North Pole at 6 p.m. EST.