A joint command between the U.S. and Canada, NORAD's primary mission is to detect and respond to threats in and around North American Airspace. But once a year, NORAD uses its sensors to track Santa's progress. Interested parties can keep track of where he is by checking social media, calling the hotline, checking email, or visiting the special website.
Here's the tech that makes the Christmas Eve operation possible:
NORAD coordinates with Santa's elves to get real time intel on Santa's departure time. This ensures that when Santa's sleigh enters monitored airspace, NORAD isn't surprised. The North Warning System is made up of 47 radar stations strung across northern Canada and Alaska that are designed to find and identify objects entering NORAD airspace. The NWS only covers the northern most part of the continent, so the radar operators quickly hand off tracking to teams watching satellite coverage.
Santa, the world's most experienced pilot, usually flies his sleigh but rode in a jet to festivities with the US Air Force on Dec. 5, 2015. Photo: US Air Force Airman 1st First Class Ashleigh S. Pavelek
After radar operators confirm Santa has entered NORAD airspace, a group of satellites known as the Defense Support Program begin tracking the flight. DSP was launched to detect the infrared signatures emitted by ballistic missiles so the missiles could be intercepted before striking North American cities.
DSP satellites are so sensitive, they can actually see the unique infrared signature of Rudolph's nose. According to NASA and NORAD, Rudolph's nose gives off about the same amount of heat as a small missile launch, which explains how the reindeer stay warm in the arctic atmosphere.
Santa's honor guard
Once NORAD began tracking Santa, they realized that jet pilots could be given the unique experience of getting to fly with their hero. Every year, select Canadian and U.S. pilots are granted the chance to escort Santa. Canada launches CF-18 pilots to greet Santa while the U.S. hangs out in F-15s, F-16s, and F-22s.
Santa slows to run with the fighter jets, allowing the pilots to wave to Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolph.
Of course, NORAD doesn't want just pilots to get a glimpse of the world's jolliest elf, so they installed a number of high-speed cameras around the world to track Santa's progress and feed live video to children through the NORAD Santa website. The camera's provide much of the tracking information for Santa's journey outside of North America.