Kate Bevan   23 December 2017

Santa

Santa Claus is a busy fellow on Christmas Eve, with a lot of ground to cover. Picture: Matt Ryall / Flickr

One of the first things a child learns about Santa Claus is the story of his sleigh journey around the world on Christmas Eve delivering gifts with the help of his team of reindeer led – of course – by Rudolph.

But did you know that you can track Santa on his epic delivery round on December 24? Thanks to technology ranging from radar and jet fighters to Google Maps and special SantaCams, children (of all ages, even the bigger kids) can keep an eye on how far he is from your town on the night.

NORAD, the joint North American air defence body, first announced it had spotted Santa on its radar screens back in 1948, when it issued a notice on December 24 warning of “one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000ft, heading 180 degrees”.

But it was in 1955 that the huge operation at the defence body that swings into action every year first really got under way.

That Christmas, Sears Roebuck & Co, a department store, had put an advert in a local paper in Colorado Springs, complete with a phone number for children to call Santa so that they could tell him what gifts they were hoping for.

But unfortunately for the store, the advert contained a misprint – and instead of reaching the Santa standing by, the phone instead rang on the desk of Colonel Harry Shoup, who to his everlasting credit, had his staff check the radar and updated every child who called the misprinted number that day on Santa’s whereabouts – and so a tradition was born.

Harry Shoup

Colonel Harry Shoup was on duty on Christmas Eve 1955 when he got a call from a child wanting to know where Santa was. Picture: NORAD

More than 60 years later and NORAD’s Santa-tracking exercise is a huge labour of love every Christmas, relying on NORAD workers and their families and friends to staff the phone lines and respond to every call and email that pours in.

The technology NORAD uses has changed and grown over the years. The first indication on Christmas Eve that Santa is on his journey comes via NORAD’s North Warning System, 47 radar installations across northern Canada and Alaska.

Then, says NORAD: “The moment our radar tells us that Santa has lifted off, we begin to use the same satellites that we use in providing air warning of possible missile launches aimed at North America.”

Once Santa is airborne, tracking responsibility switches to geosynchronous satellites with heat sensors that can detect both missiles and Rudolph’s red nose.

Jet fighters based in North America provide an escort for Santa when he’s over the continent. Last year Santa’s escorts while he was in Canadian airspace came from 3 Wing Bagotville in Quebec and 4 Wing Cold Lake in Alberta, said Major-General Christian Drouin last December.

“The responsibility of keeping watchful eyes over North American airspace 24/7 rests with our men and women of the Canadian NORAD Region. It is a duty and honour we hold dearly: to ensure Santa’s safe passage through North America so we can deliver joy and goodwill.”

Canadian pilots

Captain Sébastien Tremblay-Verreault (left) with Master Corporal Scott Rose (right) were among the Canadian pilots taking care of Santa in North American airspace in 2016. Picture: Corporal Jean Roch Chabot / NORAD

The final pieces of the puzzle are the dedicated SantaCams NORAD added to its technology stack in 1998. These are positioned at key points around the world and switched on an hour before the big man is due, and then the footage is downloaded and posted to NORAD’s special Santa-tracking website.

It’s not only NORAD that deploys an extensive array of technology to track Santa: Google got in on the Santa act in 2004, after it bought Keyhole, a project that became Google Earth. The very first tracker was built by Brian McClendon, the founder of Keyhole, who became the first vice-president of Google Maps and Google Earth, as a skunkworks project.

Google won’t talk about the technology it uses to track Santa, but we’d hazard a guess that it’s based on Santa’s mobile phone checking in with cellphone towers to record his location. If the big guy has his Google Maps Timeline switched on, he’ll be able to check back on how his journey panned out when he gets back to the North Pole and compare it to previous years.

Santa is a busy man – estimates vary, but there are about 1.86 billion children under the age of 14 in the world, all of whom will be on the list that Santa has of course checked twice.

Buzzfeed did the sums and reckons that Santa will be travelling some 17.5 million kilometres, which is a lot of ground to cover in just 24 hours, and that his sleigh will have to get up to something like 515,000km per hour – for comparison’s sake, the International Space Station orbits the earth at about 27,590km per hour.  

Google tracker

Google keeps details of the tech it uses to track Santa close to its chest. Picture: Google

So it’s pretty impressive that NORAD and Google manage to track him so closely on the night when you think about it.

As well as their actual Santa trackers, both Google and Norad offer games and activities through their apps and online, with Google additionally offering educational games and resources for teachers including coding games and activities designed to get kids learning about other languages and traditions.

Will you and your family be following Santa on Christmas Eve? And will you follow him via Google or via NORAD? Let us know in the comments – we’d love to keep track with you of Santa on his way to you.