Each December, NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command conduct a special mission, detecting, tracking and assuring the safe completion of an international flight that covers tens of thousands of miles in a 24-hour period. NORAD, you see, takes seriously the assignment of tracking Santa Claus. According to Army Major Mike Humphreys, of NORAD and US Northern Command Public Affairs, the annual project to track St. Nick falls naturally within the mission of NORAD. "We are constantly tracking the skies for man-made objects to defend and protect North America," he says, adding, "This is a bi-national command shared between US and Canada. The missions are aerospace warning and defense, and maritime warning. Obviously, tracking Santa falls within the aerospace warning space because [the sleigh is] a man-made object."
Explaining how NORAD carries out the Santa assignment, Humphreys says, "We have radar systems called the North Warning System, 47 installations across Canada and Alaska. We use them along with satellite imagery, carefully placed 'Santa Cams' throughout the world to videotape Santa's passage and arrival, and our jet fighters. We say that Santa slows down for the F-15, F-16, and F-22 fighters which intercept and follow him." Major Humphreys says that individuals and families have a wide array of options through which they can track Santa's flight. "People can become a fan on Facebook, and use Twitter, YouTube, TroopTube, and Flickr," he says, and adds, "Google will cooperate, they're managing noradsanta.org." Video and still imagery will be available through the Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System (DiVIDS), which distributes and markets DoD imagery. Humphreys says that, on Christmas day, NORAD will be conducting live interviews to distribute across the country and Canada. In addition, material from the Santa Cams, which Google has the responsibility of maintaining for NORAD, will be posted on DiVIDS.
This year, OnStar is partnering with NORAD to provide OnStar subscribers with live Santa updates as they travel in their vehicles on Christmas Eve. Subscribers will be able to simply push the blue OnStar button to get status reports on Santa's whereabouts. Also new, beginning at 12:00 a.m. MST on Dec. 24, visitors to http://www.noradsanta.org can watch Santa as he prepares his sleigh, checks his list and goes through all his preparations to ensure he has a successful journey. As soon as Santa takes off from the North Pole, children can also track him with up-to-the-minute Google Maps and Google Earth reports. Santa trackers will begin answering phones and replying to email at 4:00 a.m. MST (6:00 a.m. EST) on Christmas Eve. Children of all ages can call the NTS toll free number 1-877-Hi-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) or send an email to [email protected].
Major Humphreys says that, though NORAD is particularly "open" in discussing the Santa Tracking mission, there are actually a number of mechanisms the command uses to communicate with the public on a regular basis. "We have regular NORAD and usnorthcomm, on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, and, as well as both web sites," he says. He continues, "Social media is a direct communication to our audiences, and given some of the very critical information we deal with, I think that Twitter is one of the better social mediums for us because we can communicate with people very quickly through Twitter." In a statement, NORAD notes that the NTS program is carried out with the assistance of many corporate partners. Booz Allen Hamilton has designed the NTS Web site. Other sponsors helping with the event include Verizon, who donates the toll-free number, Time Warner, Avaya and PCI provide communications engineering, while OnStar, 5 Star Bank, Pepsi Distributing and First Choice Awards and Gifts keep the trackers happy with food, beverages and souvenir tracking pins.
Despite the seemingly light-hearted nature of the Santa Tracking mission, Major Humphreys says that it is part of a serious national defense mission. He says, "All kidding aside, this is an excellent way for us to interact with communities well beyond the boundaries of the US and Canada. It's for the children, but it's for the child in all of us because it's amazing how many people of all ages respond to this. This is a serious mission to protect North America, and the reason NORAD adapts so well to this campaign because no other agency in the world has the capabilities to do this" He notes that NORAD has sophisticated systems across North America, facing both inward and outward, as well as working the maritime warning piece in conjunction with the Coast Guard, and that the Northern Command has responsibilities for the protections of the homelands of North America. He says, "We hope that everyone who tracks Santa with us understands the importance of the mission and will follow us year round."