NORAD reports Santa Claus clears Arctic airspace early Christmas Eve

Following a tradition started during the height of the Cold War, the military organization responsible for securing North American airspace turned its attention on Christmas Eve to tracking Santa Claus as he makes his way from an undisclosed North Pole location to chimneys across the world. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), based in Colorado Springs, reported Wednesday that the rosy-cheeked gift-bearer had a successful launch and was making his anticipated rounds. NORAD — motto: “Deter. Detect. Defend.” — uses radar, satellites, Santa Cams and fighter jets to keep track of the jolly elf and his reindeer-driven sleigh.

The military command issued this statement on Santa’s progress Wednesday morning:

NORAD has confirmed that Santa and his fully-loaded, reindeer-powered sleigh took off from the North Pole and soared into the arctic sky at 6:00 a.m. EST (5:00 a.m. CST, 4:00 a.m. MST, 3:00 a.m. PST). NORAD radar is tracking Rudolph’s bright red nose, and satellite imagery is providing minute-by-minute coverage of Santa’s location.

It’s a complicated process, relying heavily on the “infrared signature” of Rudolph’s nose:

The moment that radar indicates Santa has lifted off, we use our second detection system. Satellites positioned in geo-synchronous orbit at 22,300 miles from the Earth’s surface are equipped with infrared sensors which enable them to detect heat. Amazingly, Rudolph’s bright red nose gives off an infrared signature which allow our satellites to detect Rudolph and Santa.

A series of “ultra-cool, high-tech, high-speed” Santa Cams, first deployed in 1998, allow NORAD to ascertain visual positioning on Christmas Eve, making it easier to distinguish Santa’s violation of North American airspace from, say, a rogue North Korean missile or flock of geese. Here’s the video captured early Wednesday morning from NORAD’s North Pole surveillance cam:

While NORAD operations are usually limited to defending the United States and Canada from foreign attack, on Christmas Eve the military command — which dubs itself the “only organization that has the technology, the qualifications, and the people” to track Santa — flexes its high-tech muscles and demonstrates its worldwide surveillance capabilities. Here’s what the Defense Department knows about Santa’s usual route:

Santa usually starts at the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean and travels west. So, historically, Santa visits the South Pacific first, then New Zealand and Australia. After that, he shoots up to Japan, over to Asia, across to Africa, then onto Western Europe, Canada, the United States, Mexico and Central and South America. But keep in mind, Santa’s route can be affected by weather, so it’s really unpredictable. NORAD coordinates with Santa’s Elf launch staff to confirm his launch time, but from that point on, Santa calls the shots. We just track him!

The fateful Sears ad
The fateful Sears ad. (NORAD)
NORAD — then called the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) — began tracking Santa in 1955 after a curious child almost set off a nuclear conflagration because of a Sears ad typo published in a Colorado Springs newspaper.The ad urged children to call Santa, but inadvertently printed the super-secret telephone number to CONAD’s hotline. The phone, which was actually red, was reserved for top-level communications in the event of a Soviet attack. After a few tense moments following the first call, Colonel Harry Shoup had CONAD personnel check the radar and report updates on Santa’s flight path as more children called.

Those interested in learning Santa’s precise location can e-mail NORAD at on Christmas Eve and expect a return e-mail detailing the sleigh’s last known location. It’s also possible to follow Santa in 3-D. Go here for instructions how to follow NORAD’s Santa tracking using the Google Earth application.

NORAD boasts that “almost no taxpayer dollars” are spent on the Santa project each year, but hundreds of volunteers help make it possible:

Two military personnel from the NORAD Public Affairs staff are assigned to manage the program in addition to their regular military duties. In addition, almost 1,000 Canadian and American uniformed personnel — Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines, as well as their families and friends — volunteer their time on Christmas Eve to answer the thousands of phone calls and emails that flood in from around the world.

Because children all around the world want to track Santa — including anywhere “children who believe in him live,” even “Afghanistan, Israel, non-Christian countries” — NORAD’s Santa site is also viewable in Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Japanese and Italian.