- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Anxious children didn’t have to peer into the starry sky last night to check on Santa Claus’ progress. They simply logged on to www.noradsanta.org.

Today’s tech-savvy children, at least those who knew their good behavior would earn them stockings full of treats, followed ol’ Saint Nick and his reindeer-powered sleigh with a little help from the North American Air Defense Command (Norad) and plenty of imagination.

The Colorado Springs-based group, once known as the Continental Air Defense Command, has been tracking Santa for nearly 50 years. Who says engineers can’t be playful on Christmas eve?

The Web site, which received more than 294 million hits around this time last year, continually updated Santa’s progress on a worldwide map through 1 a.m. today. The site offered radar and video updates to visitors as well as an e-mail link to Santa himself.

Norad protects the skies above Canada and the United States from airborne threats such as long-range missile strikes. The September 11 terrorist attacks prompted Norad to expand its duties to include monitoring threats such as potential airplane hijackings.

For one day each year, Norad’s mission takes on a gentler tone. It even brought aboard ex-Beatle Ringo Starr to serve as 2003’s honorary Santa tracker. The jovial Brit, whose music can be heard on the site, told Norad he planned to leave soy milk for Santa this year.

Norad employs a number of technologies to keep tabs on high-flying objects, including Christmas sleighs.

Tracking Santa clearly is secondary to Norad’s mission to protect North America, says Norad spokesman Master Sgt. Gary Carpenter. Tell that to the thousands of children who call and e-mail Norad each December, eager for updates.

The yuletide tracking begins with Norad’s radar system, a set of 47 individual installations that Sgt. Carpenter says “ring the northernmost part of Canada.”

David F. Chichka, assistant professor with George Washington University’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, says radar works via microwave radiation.

Radar installations emit microwave pulses that reflect off airborne objects and back into the radar equipment. Scientists time how long it takes the pulse to reach the object and return to measure its distance from Earth using the speed of light as a barometer: 186,000 miles per second.

Scientists can determine an object’s speed via Doppler radar, the same technology used in police radar guns, Mr. Chichka says.

With its position from Earth and speed rates known, it then can be calculated where an airborne object is headed.

“If you get a few of those readings, you can fit a curve,” Mr. Chichka says. Evasive targets such as aircraft require different techniques, “but we assume Santa Claus isn’t trying to evade us,” he says.

Norad kept tabs on the North Pole via satellites to see when Santa started his journey.

“Then we use our satellites to track him from that point,” Sgt. Carpenter says.

The “him” in question is Rudolph, the most famous of all reindeer. Rudolph’s much-maligned proboscis is the stuff of legend, but its bright light makes tracking Santa’s progress a breeze.

Norad satellites, equipped with infrared sensors, drew a bead on Rudolph’s nose, which gives off a very specific heat signature.

“The satellites have infrared sensors; they see heat similar to a missile launch,” Sgt. Carpenter says.

Maj. Douglas Martin, chief of Santa tracking with Norad, says any missile launch around the world can be detected by Norad’s sensors. So keeping track of Santa’s sleigh is just another day at the office.

“We’re able to zero in on Rudolph’s nose without a problem,” Maj. Martin says. “It’s a different intensity than a rocket launch. … They have high temperatures that only last for a certain amount of time. The launch burns off the fuel, and the [thermal] signature’s gone.

“[Rudolph’s] nose doesn’t turn off after a few minutes; it continues,” he says. “The continuation of that is due directly to the proportion of vegetables he eats through the year, carrots being one of the main requirements,” he says of Rudolph’s power source.

“It’s not uncommon for children to leave carrot sticks along with cookies and milk,” he adds.

Norad isn’t the only group that tracks objects in the sky.

Kevin B. Marvel, deputy executive officer with the District-based American Astronomical Society, says the National Aeronautics and Space Administration soon will use tracking technology to watch the Voyager spacecraft. First launched in 1977, Voyager 1 successfully examined Jupiter and Saturn and is still exploring space from a vantage point of more than 8 billion miles from the sun.

Mr. Marvel says scientists plan to use a series of 10 telescopes to help NASA watch the spacecraft. The telescopes will work as a team to record images of Voyager that will be consolidated into a single video.

“Each is recording onto tape,” he says. “All the tapes come back and get played back on a computer, which combines the signals. The resolution is much better than with a single telescope.”

He says the upgraded image is like seeing a rock on the surface of the moon rather than just seeing the surface itself.

Norad used a simpler visual tracking system to let children catch Santa making his voyage. This year marked the sixth anniversary of the Santa Cam, which uses digital cameras to capture fleeting images.

Positioned all over the world, these omni-directional Santa Cams took snapshots of Saint Nick in action for everyone to see.

Santa moves pretty fast, even faster than the best planes Norad can fly, but the Christmas icon is generous enough to downshift when necessary.

“Santa has to slow down under Mach 2 for us to see him; he does that for us,” Maj. Martin says.


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