WASHINGTON - As children go to bed tonight with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, the staff at North American Aerospace Defense Command will be busy tracking Santa Claus' global flight.
For the 56th year running, NORAD will add the job of tracking Santa on Christmas Eve to its mission of North American aerospace warning and control.
"NORAD stands the watch protecting the skies of North America 365 days a year, but on Christmas Eve the children of the world look to NORAD and our trusted partners to make sure that Santa is able to complete his mission safely," said Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr. Jacoby commands NORAD, as well as U.S. Northern Command, both based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.
The NORAD Tracks Santa mission "is a duty to the children of the world," he added, "and a privilege we've enjoyed for 56 consecutive years."
From a NORAD video of the 2010 Santa flight, a military specialist looks up from a bank of computer screens. "Sir," he says, turning to look at the camera, "we've picked up ‘Big Red' on the radar. He's entering from the northeast.
"Recommend fighter escort as he transitions over North America," the specialist adds, as the video shows an F-16 moving down the runway.
This year, the NORAD Tracks Santa website went live Dec. 1 and features a Countdown Calendar, a Kid's Countdown Village with holiday games and activities that change daily, and video messages from students and troops from around the world.
The website is available in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese and Chinese.
For the first time, using free apps in the Apple iTunes Store and in the Android market, parents and children can use their smart phones to count down the days until Santa and his reindeer take off from the North Pole to deliver presents to kids everywhere.
Facebook, Google+, YouTube and Twitter also offer tracking opportunities. Santa followers can type "@noradsanta" into each search engine to get started.
And that's not the only technology that goes into the Santa tracking mission. To track the big man in red, NORAD uses radar, satellites, Santa cams and fighter jets.
A NORAD radar system called the North Warning System consists of 47 installations strung across the northern border of North America. On Dec. 24, NORAD monitors the radar systems continuously for indications that Santa Claus has left the North Pole.
The moment radar indicates a liftoff, 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. Rudolph's bright red nose gives off an infrared signature that allows the satellites to detect Santa's sleigh.
NORAD starting using the Santa cam network in 1998. Santa cams, according to NORAD, are ultra-cool, high-tech, high-speed digital cameras prepositioned at many locations around the world. They use the cameras once a year to capture images and videos of Santa and his reindeer.
In the air, Canadian NORAD pilots flying the CF-18 fighter will intercept and welcome Santa to North America.
In the United States, American NORAD fighter pilots in F-15s, F-16s or F-22 Raptors will fly alongside Santa's airborne sleigh pulled by his famous reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph.
Once data is collected on Dec. 24, it will be pushed into Google Maps and Google Earth so families all over the world can follow Santa.
Thanks to these systems and technologies, starting at midnight Mountain Standard Time on Dec. 24, visitors to the NORAD Santa website can watch Santa's progress around the globe.
It all started in 1955 when a Sears media advertisement directed kids to call Santa Claus but printed a telephone number that rang through to the crew commander on duty at the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center.
The colonel on duty told his staff to give all children who called in a "current location" for Santa Claus. The tradition continued when NORAD replaced CONAD in 1958.
"The [NORAD Tracks Santa] effort," Jacoby said, "could not be carried out without the superb assistance of numerous government and nongovernment contributors."
Sponsors of this year's program include Acuity Scheduling, Big Fish Worldwide, Carousel Industries, the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Council, General Electric, the National Tree Lighting Ceremony, RadiantBlue Technologies Inc., Thunderbaby Studios, the U.S. Coast Guard Band, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Band, Visionbox, and the West Point Band.
Returning sponsors include the Air Force Academy Band, Analytical Graphics Inc., Air Canada, Avaya, Booz Allen Hamilton, Colorado Springs School District 11, the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System, the Federal Aviation Administration, First Choice Awards and Gifts, Globelink Foreign Language Center, Google, the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, Meshbox, the Naden Band of the Maritime Forces Pacific, Naturally Santa's Inc., the Newseum, OnStar, PCI Broadband, the Space Foundation, tw telecom, Verizon and UGroup Media.
"It is the generosity of these contributors, the hard work of the more than 1,200 volunteers who man the NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center, and vigilance of the Canadian and U.S. forces who work at NORAD that guarantees the program's success each and every year," Jacoby said.