As a child, NORAD’s Santa Tracker served as irrefutable evidence that my belief in Santa Claus was completely justified. If the military was tracking Ol’ Saint Nick, then clearly he must be zooming through the sky at near the speed of light on Christmas Eve. The largest and most sophisticated armed forces in the world surely wouldn’t waste resources on following someone who wasn’t real.
Well fast forward a few years later, and I was forced to reconsider my rationale for some things. But NORAD’s Santa Tracker is still one of my favorite Christmas tradition. I even remember a time before there was a fancy website, when you used to have to call in to NORAD’s hotline to find out Santa’s exact coordinates.
And now that I’m an ”adult,” I do find the tracker interesting — but for different reasons. Mostly I’m intrigued by the real-world technologies that NORAD supposedly employs to follow Kris Kringle. These are technologies and resources that are used on a daily basis to do homeland defense, according to the organization. I spoke with Stacey Knott, a spokesperson for NORAD, about what those technologies entail and how they are meant to be used when not pinpointing the location of a magical flying sleigh.
The first essential tool to tracking Santa is satellite surveillance. Specifically, NORAD uses the military’s Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, according to Knott. It’s a constellation of probes that sit in super-high orbits above Earth looking for infrared signatures on the planet below. Infrared is a type of light that can’t be seen but is associated with heat, so SBIRS is good for tracking heat signatures coming off of things like intercontinental ballistic missiles, for instance.
“What we’re looking for here at NORAD is if something is being shot off from somewhere else in the world, and if it’s a threat to North America,” says Knott. “That way, if we need to, we can use our missile defense systems.”
Of course, NORAD isn’t tracking any intercontinental ballistic missiles coming from Santa’s sleigh. Instead, SBIRS is supposedly picking up the infrared signature from Rudolph’s red nose, says Knott. Hopefully NORAD’s missile defense systems won’t be needed to mitigate any threat from the reindeer.
Radar is also critical for tracking Mr. Claus. That includes the North Warning System — a trail of 47 early-warning radar systems that runs along Canada’s coastline. NORAD uses these systems to quickly detect the presence of an unknown aircraft crossing into North American airspace. Such early warning allows NORAD to jump into action by sending fighter jets to meet any mysterious vehicles. But Santa shouldn’t be too worried. “Usually they can tell the difference between an airplane and Santa Claus’s sleigh,” says Knott.
NORAD also has radar stations in other areas throughout the world, as well as radar satellites that help with the cause. And there is even radar on naval ships and platforms at sea that assist with tracking when Santa is transiting between continents. “Our naval ships can also be prepared to do gift retrieval if Santa hits an air pocket,” says Knott.
The fighter jets that NORAD uses to investigate hostile aircraft entering North American airspace will also help keep an eye on Santa when he comes to our continent. These jets are part of a program called Operation Noble Eagle, which was started just a few days after September 11th, 2001. American pilots flying F-15s and F16s, as well as Canadian pilots flying CF-18s, are situated at dozens of bases across North America, and they’re capable of getting into the air in mere minutes.
The jets for Operation Noble Eagle are also poised to meet up with aircraft that have been hijacked or any aircraft flying in Washington DC that shouldn’t be flying there. Today, however, they’ll be providing a short escort for Santa when he comes to the Western Hemisphere. “Santa can fly faster than starlight,” says Knott, “so he actually slows down to be able to say hello to our fighter jets. And then in a twinkle of an eye, he’s off.”
Okay, so this last means of tracking Santa isn’t actually real, but it’s still fun. NORAD has special “Santa cameras” situated at famous landmarks across the globe that can miraculously capture Kris as he travels at the speed of light. That way, there’s photographic evidence that Santa has indeed visited your country.
Other tracking options
Of course, a Santa tracker based on nuclear deterrence technologies might feel like it’s not really in the Christmas spirit. If you want something a little less militaristic, Google has a Santa Tracker website too, designed to show off its technologies. You can check out the Google tracker on Android, Google Maps, or just plain Google.com. And those using Chromecast can stream the tracker to TV instead of the standard yule log.