Santa Claus monitors children everywhere, observing who is naughty and who is nice. But someone also has to watch over Santa.
NORAD diligently monitors American skies throughout the year in search of missiles, airplanes and other objects in the air. On Christmas Eve, that includes Saint Nick, whose sleigh tracks from the moment it takes off.
Headquartered at the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, tracks Santa using cesium.
The WebGL open source map and globe engine maintained by Analytical Graphics is widely used to display rapidly changing data. The firm Exton, Pa., Has worked with NORAD since 1997 in the effort.
When combined with the latest Internet browsers, WebGL can take advantage of the powerful NVIDIA GPUs to represent images based on real-time data from NORAD with amazing detail.
Santa Tracker: The Origin Story
NORAD began tracking Santa in 1955, when a newspaper ad misprinted a call-in number for Santa. Instead of Santa, callers reached the operations hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command Air Operations Center – the predecessor to NORAD – in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
When the phone started ringing, Colonel Harry Shoup, then chief operating officer, had his staff use the network of powerful CONAD radar facilities to track and report on Santa’s progress to children calling the number.
Every year the tradition continued, with military personnel answering phone calls from young children.
Today, NORAD shares this critical information through the web, a dedicated mobile application and social networks. More than 1,500 employees direct the hotline, which receives around 150,000 calls each year.
The NORAD Santa tracking page has more than 1.8 million followers on Facebook. For live updates of Santa’s location on Christmas Eve, there is also the Twitter manager @NoradSanta and the YouTube channel.
The Santa Tracker website allows children to explore the North Pole throughout December. But on Christmas Eve, as soon as Santa’s sleigh takes the flight, site visitors can find live updates about its location and images of Santa’s cameras stationed around the world.
Children must be in bed before 10 p.m. so that they are asleep when Santa arrives, recommends Hannah Pinkos, software developer at Cesium.
“It’s really fun for millions of children to visit the application I work on,” he said. “I would have loved this when I was little, so I could see Santa in 3D.”
The images of Santa’s trips have received several updates over the years, the most recent with a particle system that allows viewers to see traces of snow and sparkles behind an animated 3D model of Santa while flying around the world.
This year, the sparkles and snowflakes will be visible in both the desktop version and the mobile version of the site.
Upgrading Santa’s Sleigh
The NORAD Santa Tracker attracts more than 20 million visitors every December 24, who can now approach as Santa rises over vast mountain ranges and rushes through the city streets.
NORAD’s efforts over the past six decades have thrown new ideas about this centenary phenomenon.
Typically, Santa begins his journey in the South Pacific. Then, when night falls, he travels to Australia and New Zealand, before continuing west. The data also shows that he probably has rosy cheeks for riding his sled in cold climates, and weighs about 260 pounds (before milk and cookies).
The majority identifies Santa with the fourth-century Christian saint, Nikolaos de Myra, known as Nikolaos the Thaumaturgist, famous for his secret gifts. Others see on their night journey in the time of echoes of ancient tales of the Norse god Odin and his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.
Whatever their origins, thanks to the efforts of NORAD, children and their parents around the world can keep a close eye on Santa on Christmas Eve, just as he does with us throughout the year.