Long before the Wright brothers' first flight or before the first hot air balloon took to the skies, a jolly fat man known as Santa zipped around the globe on a reindeer-driven sleigh.
To deliver gifts to millions of children around the globe, Santa must travel at lightning-fast speeds. For generations, nobody knew how Santa did it all except that when children woke there were gifts under the tree and the milk and cookies were gone. Today, the military has sophisticated radar systems that are able to track Saint Nick as he makes the trip from the North Pole, giving us all a peek into his magic.
NORAD Tracks Santa provides minute-by-minute updates of Santa, where he is now and where he's going next. There's even video of Santa flying over the globe. Earlier this morning, people tuning in could see him -- and Rudolf's blazing red nose -- flying over the Great Wall of China. Another video shows him flying over Sydney and its famous opera house.
For those without internet access, don't fret. NORAD has a toll-free phone number where a live person will actually tell you were Santa is. Just call 1-877-HI-NORAD (446-6723) and one of the staffers there will provide updates.
And those with smartphones can open Google Maps for mobile and do a search for "Santa" to see his latest location.
Earlier this morning, Santa was spotted over Japan then South Korea, North Korea, Russia, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
NORAD Tracking Santa on Christmas Eve
So why does the military care about Santa. He surely isn't a threat to national security, right?
The tradition began in 1955 after a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement for children to call Santa misprinted the telephone number. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put kids through to the hotline for the commander in chief of the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor.
The director of operations at the time, Col. Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born.
In 1958, the governments of Canada and the United States created a bi-national air defense command for North America called the North American Aerospace Defense Command, known as NORAD, which then took on the tradition of tracking Santa.
Since that time, NORAD men, women, family and friends have volunteered their time to personally respond to phone calls and emails from children all around the world. In addition, NORAD now tracks Santa using the internet.
Infrared Detectors Pick Up Rudolph's Red Nose
NORAD uses four high-tech systems to track Santa -- radar, satellites, Santa Cams and fighter jets.
Tracking Santa starts with the NORAD radar system called the North Warning System. This powerful radar system consists of 47 installations strung across the northern border of North America. Satellites positioned in geo-synchronous orbit at 22,300 miles from the Earth's surface are equipped with infrared sensors, which enable them to detect heat. Amazingly, NORAD says, Rudolph's bright red nose gives off an infrared signature, which allows the satellites to detect Rudolph and Santa.
The third tracking system is the Santa Cam network. This isn't normal military equipment but was introduced in 1998, the year NORAD starting putting the Santa tracking program on the internet. The cameras capture images and videos of Santa and his reindeer as they make their journey around the world. They are posted instantly on the web.
The fourth system is made up of fighter jets. Canadian NORAD fighter pilots flying the CF-18 intercept and welcome Santa to North America. In the U.S., American NORAD fighter pilots in either the F-15 or the F-16 get the thrill of flying alongside Santa and his famous reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and, of course, Rudolph.