How does Santa make it around the world in one night?

Tracking Santa Claus with NORAD

An F-16 flies a NORAD mission over New York City in 2003.
An F-16 flies a NORAD mission over New York City in 2003.
U.S. Air Force/AFP/Getty Images

Now that we've explored the science behind Santa's sleigh, let's take a look at who else is tracking his flight path.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, is a military organization run by both the United States and Canada, and its job is to monitor all possible aerial attacks coming into North America. With a massive amount of radar systems installed across Canada, NORAD can track quite a lot of airspace movement.

NORAD keeps an eye on more than just potential attacks, however, as they have tracked Santa's movements for more than 50 years. The tradition began in 1955 when NORAD's predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), received several calls from children hoping to speak with Santa Claus -- a Sears department store had mistakenly listed Santa's number as CONAD's operations hotline. The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, located Santa's sleigh on radar, and the tradition was passed onto NORAD when it formed in 1958 [source: NORAD]. Today, you can still call or send e-mails, and hundreds of volunteers spend their Christmas Eve relaying information to thousands of children curious about Santa's whereabouts.

So how do they do it? They simply take the same technology used for detecting missiles and apply it to Santa's sleigh. NORAD uses heat-seeking geosynchronous satellites to track missiles. Since missiles give off lots of heat when they're fired off, it's fairly easy to track them [source: NORAD]. Since Santa's Stardust Antimatter Propulsion Rocket would get pretty hot when it travels around the world, NORAD could figure out his general location throughout the night. Rudolph's nose would also give off some extra heat, too, making it all the easier to follow the sleigh's progress throughout Christmas Eve.

If evidence from one major organization isn't enough, in 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cleared Santa for flight [source: ComPilots Aviation Portal]. Responsible for ensuring the safety of millions of holiday travelers every year with a complex network of air traffic control systems, the FAA recognized jolly old St. Nick's flight path and confirmed his coordinates in one clean sweep.

For more on high-speed travel and other Christmas-related articles, see the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "How does NORAD track Santa?"
  • Steigerwald, Bill. "New and improved antimatter spaceship for Mars missions."