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After Hours

Tracking Santa's Sleigh Ride with a Little Help from NORAD

Tracking Santa
December 23, 2012 3:41PM

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Wondering where is Santa now? Indeed, Santa's out making his rounds and NORAD's on his trail. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has Arctic experts busy tracking Santa and his reindeer. Satellite operators are keeping tabs on Santa with their most sophisticated systems, along with the infrared beacon on the sleigh, otherwise known as Rudolph's red nose.

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There once was a time when Santa Claus could, like Batman, use the dark of night to disguise his comings and goings. This had its advantages, not the least of which was keeping little children guessing when the old guy would actually show up.

Those days are long gone. This year, NORAD and various helpers are once again tracking the Bearded One through airspace with radar, satellite and Santa cams, and children the world over will use their family tablets, laptops, smartphones, connected TVs and video consoles to keep tabs.

According to all news reports, instead of being discouraged by such watchful electronic eyes, Claus is as full of good cheer as ever. One curious transition, however, is seldom noted. Since the end of the Cold War and a significant drop in the risk of, say, incoming missiles, tracking Santa Claus has become NORAD's most famous annual endeavor.

Over Half a Century

Santa and NORAD have been partners in the most famous nighttime delivery service in the world for more than half a century. It all began with a well-intentioned but erroneous phone listing in 1955.

At that time, a Colorado Springs newspaper ran a Sears Roebuck ad that encouraged children to call Santa but printed the wrong phone number -- the operations hotline for the CONAD Commander-in-Chief. In 1958, CONAD became the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD.

When the movie is made, you might see a young Colonel Harry Shoup, Director of Operations, picking up the phone to answer the first phone call resulting from that error, as his voice-over says the words he later told news media.

"I will never forget it," he says. "The Red Phone rang, and it was either the Pentagon calling or the four-star general." It was neither. Instead, it was a child asking if Shoup was actually Santa.

Since tracking all foreign incoming air traffic was central to his job description, Shoup decided to ask his staff to check radar screens for signs of a sleigh and reindeer, no wings. To the surprise of no one except perhaps any eavesdropping Soviets, the NORAD staff started providing updates on Santa's moving location.

Bing, Not Google

Shoup died in 2009 after being known for years as the Santa Colonel, and NORAD has continued the task of making sure the world's most famous animal-powered vehicle doesn't hit any friendly aircraft.

Santa may not change, but this annual tracking ritual does. This year, for instance, NORAD's Track Santa page at www.noradsanta.org will use Microsoft's Bing Maps to follow St. Nicholas in 2D space and Cesium for 3D. The site, which utilizes Microsoft's Azure platform, also offers multi-platform tracker apps, animated games, computer generated videos of Santa's expected trip, and a video tour of the tracking facilities, the NORAD Track Santa Operations Center. (continued...)

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