Dec 25, 2011

Santa's Christmas Eve trip around the world used to be shrouded in mystery -- but not anymore.

While the jolly big man in the red suit raced around the planet Saturday night, more than a million children tracked his every move by phone, by computer and even Twitter.

At Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, Santa-tracking volunteers took a record 102,000 telephone calls, shattering the previous mark of 80,000.

NORAD, which checks Santa's progress using radar and secret satellites, recorded 999,471 "likes" on its Facebook page, compared with 716,000 a year ago.

But NORAD's Santa Twitter feed had the biggest surge in popularity, collecting 100,778 followers, almost double last year's 53,000.

Hundreds of tweets tracked Santa around the globe, from Australia, through Europe and finishing in Hawaii.

As Santa's sleigh flew over Canada, one tweet said: "It's the reindeers' favorite stop of the trip, Reindeer Lake in Saskatchewan, Canada!!"

Those involved with the tracking project said the records reflected the growing popularity of tracking Santa's flight, as well as the explosion of social media.

"I think what happens is that every year the ones that participated" tell others, said Canadian Navy Lt. Al Blondin. "There's word of mouth."

Using more traditional communication, children started phoning NORAD at 4 a.m. Saturday and didn't stop until Santa was almost at their chimney.

"The phones are ringing like crazy," Lt. Cmdr. Bill Lewis said Saturday afternoon.

This year, for the second time, first lady of the United States Michelle Obama was among the volunteers, taking about 10 calls from Hawaii where her family is on vacation.

Lewis said Obama's voice didn't faze the phoning children.

"They all just asked run-of-the-mill stuff. They wanted to know about Santa," he said.

The idea for tracking Santa's progress with NORAD equipment is credited to American Colonel Harry Shoup of CONAD, NORAD's predecessor.

In December 1955, Shoup got a call from a child wanting to talk to Santa. It turned out that a Colorado Springs newspaper ad offering children a chance to talk to Santa had printed the wrong telephone number -- and the calls went straight through to the commander's hotline.

Knowing there were more calls to come, Shoup had his staff check the radar for updates on Santa's progress from the North Pole and a great tradition was born.

For the more inquisitive and borderline disbelieving children, volunteers explain how Santa can be tracked using four high-tech systems -- radar, satellites, Santa cams and fighter jets.

The tracking starts with the North Warning System, which consists of 47 radar installations strung across northern Canada and Alaska. They track Santa's departure from the North Pole. Then the trackers switch to satellites with infrared sensors, which enable them to detect heat from Rudolph's red nose.

The third element is the Santa cam network, which employs ultra-cool, high-tech, high-speed digital cameras at many locations around the world. NORAD only uses these cameras once a year.

The final system is made up of Canadian pilots flying CF-18s and American pilots in F-15s, F-16s or F-22s. They often fly alongside Santa as he makes his way through Canadian and American airspace.

The volunteers then explain how all the data is streamed to Google Maps and Google Earth so children all over the world can follow Santa.

If that doesn't convince them Santa's real, then there's the old fallback: If you don't believe, you don't receive.
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