He better watch out

Soon, very soon, like the inevitable fruitcake delivery, there will be stories of the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD’s) ability to track Santa Claus.  Puff-pieces will abound.  All of these stories will talk of how NORAD tracks Santa as he and his reindeer fly and dash around the world.  If you have children, this can raise some VERY AWKWARD questions, which we will attempt to answer here.

Does the NORAD story ring true?  Can they really track Santa using good-old fashioned American tech?  Consider me the big brother, ready to disabuse you of your quaint notions of Santa and NORAD.  Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this.  It’s for the children, after all, and the avoidance of answering awkward questions.

Santa, Sears Roebuck, and NORAD

So how, exactly, is NORAD involved with tracking Santa?  Is it magic gas?  The answer, my friend, is not breaking like the wind.  Instead, go to the NORAD Santa tracking page, http://www.noradsanta.org/.  Within the page, there’s a nice little history about why NORAD tracks Santa.  SPOILER, the story involves children calling NORAD’s predecessor, Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), because of a hi-larious printing error in a Sears Roebuck flyer.  Go ahead, read the history of NORAD for Christmas—you know it’ll enhance everyone’s holiday spirit.

But I suspect more of you are curious about HOW NORAD tracks Santa.  Don’t worry, big brother is here to explain and spoil it for you.  For the easily distracted readers, just click on the “How we track Santa” link.

A Four-fer-all

NORAD’s story:   Radar, satellites, Santa Cams, and jet fighters are all used to track Santa.

The radar system NORAD is using to “track” Santa’s flight is the North Warning System, which NORAD describes as “47 installations strung along Canada’s North and Alaska.” NORAD say these radars will “see” Santa as he flies from his home in the North Pole.

Once the radars see Santa, his flight information gets shunted to the missile warning satellites guarding our nation 24/7.  This means the radars probably only see Santa once (unless he’s going back and forth over the North Pole), and so once he’s flown past a certain point, the radars probably can’t see him anymore.  See, the problem—these radars can’t track Santa around the world.  They can only track him around the North Pole.

It makes sense, according to NORAD, to bring the missile warning satellites (I believe they are referring to the Defense Support Program (DSP) and Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites) into the picture to keep tracking Santa.

RREEALLY—Rudolph’s nose?  RREEALLY?

The thing is, these missile warning satellites are designed to detect missile launches.  On the NORAD page, it specifically says these satellites use infrared sensor payloads to detect launches, because these sensors can pick up on the tremendous amounts of energy, or heat, a launching missile produces.  Don’t worry about Santa sneaking through, though, because NORAD says they can track Santa because of Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.

Rudolph’s nose apparently puts out so much heat, NORAD’s missile warning satellites’ infrared sensors can track Santa’s progress in his sleigh.  Keep in mind though, these NORAD statements are iffy.  Analysts are required to figure out just what they’re seeing using these infrared payloads, so maybe it’s not Rudolph’s nose, but something else.  Because, if Rudolph’s nose were putting out that much heat, not only would he be roast reindeer, but his hitched up pals would be too.  And Santa’s outfit would look more “charcoal” than red.

Then there’s the Santa Cams.  NORAD say these cameras are used only on 24 December.  These cameras are positioned all over the globe.  They say the cameras capture images of Santa and his reindeer as they go about making children all over the world happy.  The thing is, I know when I was a child, I stayed awake a good long time, but I never saw Santa.  How is it these cameras see Santa, then?  Hmmm.

And those lucky jet fighter pilots—this is kind of where the story gets weird.  NORAD say the jet fighters track Santa—but they do it under the context of “escorting” Santa.  They get to escort Santa all across North America.  NORAD says Santa even slows down for the fighter escorts, because the jets at their top speed can’t match Santa’s sleigh.  But the Canadian and American fighters can’t go much further than North American airspace, and Santa soon has to speed up—otherwise there will be some unhappy children around the world.

Using a child’s logic

But here’s the thing.  We now know the radars only see Santa’s sleigh as he lifts off and flies over the North Pole.  We know the Santa Cams, as many as there are, only see Santa a few seconds at a time (he can’t dilly-dally).  And North American jet fighters, while well meaning, only slow Santa down (and are kind of like the guy standing behind you during a drug test).  So it all comes down to the space assets—those missile warning satellites – for tracking Santa around the world.

There is an issue with that satellite story, though.  The “truthiness” won’t be apparent to a child.  Children know about heat and might put two and two together.  They might be inclined to think that because Rudolph’s nose puts out enough heat to be detectable by the infrared payload on those missile warning satellites, well, bad things are probably happening.  Awkward questions abound.

So maybe, just maybe, there’s an easier explanation for this whole story that dodges those questions.  An explanation so simple, it’s just overlooked, but acceptable to a child.  Maybe Santa WANTS NORAD to know where he is.  Maybe Santa WANTS children to see just how busy he is as NORAD shows his progress.   He sees you when you’re tracking, he knows when you’re alert.  He is a magic elf, after all.  It’s very likely his magic is allowing NORAD to track him.

tracking Santa–in your pocket and on your desk

Because NORAD tracks him, you can track him, too, on any computer or smartphone.  There are IOS, Android, and Windows Phone 8  applications you can download so you can show your children exactly where Santa is.

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John Holst’s career path is as nonsensical and mad as the March Hare. In a series of what John thought were very trusting decisions, the United States Air Force let him babysit nuclear weapons, develop future officers, and then operate multi-billion dollar space systems. Then John re-enacted scenes from “Brazil” by joining the Missile Defense Agency, working as minutes-taker, configuration, project, mission, and test manager. When he’s not writing for Clearancejobs.com, he is putting his journalism degree skills to use as The Mad Spaceball.