24 hours a day, 365 days a year, NORAD tracks everything that flies in and around North America in defense of our homeland. Homeland defense is our #1 priority. On Dec. 24, we have the very special mission of also tracking Santa using the same systems we use every day: satellite systems, high-powered radar and jet fighters. For 65 years, NORAD and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) have tracked Santa’s flight around the world.
The modern tradition of tracking Santa began in 1955 when a young child accidentally dialed the unlisted phone number of the CONAD Operations Center upon seeing an newspaper advertisement telling kids to call Santa. The Director of Operations, Colonel Harry Shoup, answered the phone and instructed his staff to check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole.
Thus a tradition was born, and continued when NORAD was formed in 1958. Each year since, NORAD has dutifully reported Santa’s location on Dec. 24 to millions of children and families across the globe.
It all starts with the NORAD radar system called the North Warning System. This powerful radar system has 47 installations strung across Canada's North and Alaska. NORAD makes a point of checking the radar closely for indications of Santa Claus leaving the North Pole every holiday season. 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.
These satellites are located in a geo-synchronous orbit (that's a cool phrase meaning that the satellite is always fixed over the same spot on the Earth) at 22,300 miles above the Earth. The satellites have infrared sensors, meaning they can see heat. When a rocket or missile is launched, a tremendous amount of heat is produced - enough for the satellites to see them. Rudolph's nose gives off an infrared signature similar to a missile launch. The satellites detect Rudolph's bright red nose with no problem.
The last system we use is the NORAD jet fighter. Canadian NORAD fighter pilots, flying the CF-18, take off out of Newfoundland and welcome Santa to North America. Then at numerous locations in Canada other CF-18 fighter pilots escort Santa. While in the United States, American NORAD fighter pilots in either the F-15s, F16s or F-22s get the thrill of flying with Santa and the famous Reindeer - Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph. Even though Santa flies faster than any jet fighter (Santa actually slows down for us to escort him), all of these systems together provide NORAD with a very good continuous picture of his whereabouts.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How long has NORAD been tracking Santa?
NORAD's predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), began tracking Santa in 1955. NORAD replaced CONAD in 1958 and took over the mission of tracking Santa's flight around the world, and they have been tracking Santa every year since!
Why does NORAD track Santa?
Twenty four hours a day, 365 days a year, NORAD tracks airplanes, missiles, space launches and anything else that flies in or around the North American continent, while also completing some other very important missions. While the tradition of tracking Santa began purely by accident, NORAD continues to track Santa. We're the only organization that has the technology, the qualifications, and the people to do it. And, we love it! NORAD is honored to be Santa's official tracker!
When will Santa arrive at my house?
NORAD tracks Santa, but only Santa knows his route, which means we cannot predict where and when he will arrive at your house. We do, however, know from history that it appears he arrives only when children are asleep! In most countries, it seems Santa arrives between 9:00 p.m. and midnight on December 24th. If children are still awake when Santa arrives, he moves on to other houses. He returns later, but only when the children are asleep!
What route does Santa travel?
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. 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!
Does Santa visit everyone (i.e. Afghanistan, Israel, non-Christian countries)?
Indeed! Santa visits all homes where children believe in him.
How can Santa travel the world within 24 hours?
NORAD intelligence reports indicate that Santa does not experience time the way we do. His trip seems to take 24 hours to us, but to Santa it might last days, weeks or even months. Santa would not want to rush the important job of delivering presents to children and spreading joy to everyone, so the only logical conclusion is that Santa somehow functions within his own time-space continuum.
Is there a Santa Claus?
Mountains of historical data and NORAD tracking information leads us to believe that Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of people throughout the world.
How old is Santa?
It's hard to know for sure, but NORAD intelligence indicates Santa is AT LEAST 16 centuries old.
What does Santa look like?
Based on flight profile data gathered from NORAD's radar and satellite tracking, NORAD concludes that Santa probably stands about 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs approximately 260 pounds (before cookies). Based on fighter-aircraft photos, we know he has a generous girth (belly), rosy cheeks from sleigh riding in cold weather, and a flowing white beard.
How does Santa get down chimneys?
Although NORAD has different hypotheses and theories as to how Santa actually gets down the chimneys, we don't have definitive information to explain the magical phenomenon.
Do your planes ever intercept Santa?
Over the past 50 years, our fighter jets (F-16s, F-15s, F-22s and CF-18s) have intercepted Santa many, many times. When the jets intercept Santa, they tip their wings to say, "Hello Santa! NORAD is tracking you again this year!" Santa always waves. He loves to see the pilots!
Does NORAD have any pictures of Santa taken from your planes?
Our fighter pilots love to take photos of Santa. We also have NORAD Santa Cams in space which take video of Santa as he flies round the world.
Does NORAD have any statistics on Santa's sleigh?
NORAD can confirm that Santa's sleigh is a versatile, all weather, multi-purpose, vertical short-take-off and landing vehicle. It is capable of traveling vast distances without refueling and is deployed, as far as we know, only on December 24th (and sometimes briefly for a test flight about a month before Christmas).