NORAD, Google Keep Tabs on St. Nick

An incorrect phone number in a Sears & Roebuck magazine ad in Colorado Springs in 1955 led to a new Christmas tradition: the North American Aerospace Defense Command embracing a more light-hearted duty and tracking Santa Claus.

Google joined the fun in 2004, when Google Earth, then called Keyhole Earth Viewer, was also used to help track Kris Kringle.

Google vice president of engineering Brian McClendon and senior software engineer Bruno Bowden shared some history and spread some Christmas cheer on the Google Blog:

Sipping warm cider, watching the snow fall, unwrapping gifts—these holiday traditions always seem to produce many of the year’s sweetest memories. Several years ago, we added another holiday tradition to our list—helping NORAD keep tabs on Santa every Christmas Eve.

NORAD’s Santa-tracking dates back to 1955, when a Sears & Roebuck magazine ad in Colorado Springs accidentally directed readers to call NORAD instead of the “Talk-to-Santa” hotline they were advertising. Embracing the holiday spirit, the folks at NORAD provided callers with Santa’s location according to their radar and have tracked his journey ever since. Many years later, in 2004, the same holiday spirit inspired us to use Google Earth—it was called “Keyhole Earth Viewer” back then—to display Santa’s voyage around the world on Christmas Eve. We hosted the entire tracker on a single machine and were excited to have an audience of 25,000 following St. Nick’s flight with us that night.

Our scrappy Santa tracker has come a long way since 2004. We added “Santa-cam” videos for select locations around the world, 3D SketchUp models of Santa’s sleigh and his North Pole home, the official feed of Santa’s location from NORAD headquarters and several other improvements. With more technical resources to support this richer experience and the wonderful efforts of our Santa-tracking team, 2008 was the biggest year ever for NORAD Tracks Santa—more than 8 million people tuned in to track Santa last Christmas Eve.

As soon as he returned to North Pole last year, Santa and his elves began planning for his 2009 flight—and we were no different. We thought hard about the different ways we could improve the Santa tracker and, after a year of planning, we think this year’s will be the best one yet. As usual, we’ll display Santa’s location, according to NORAD, in Google Maps and Google Earth at www.noradsanta.org. But we’ve made a few improvements to make tracking Santa even easier. Namely, we’ll display Santa’s journey with the Google Earth plug-in directly on the NORAD Tracks Santa site, instead of using the Google Earth client. As a result, you’ll be able to follow Santa in Google Earth’s immersive, 3D environment directly within your Web browser. For more information about the plug-in and why we chose to use this tool to track Santa, have a look at our post on the Google Geo Developers Blog.

We’re also excited about the many different ways you can keep track of Santa’s location this Christmas Eve. Like last year, Santa will be trackable by visiting m.noradsanta.org on a mobile device, or searching for “Santa” on Google Maps for Mobile, available for most mobile phones (read more on the Google Mobile Blog). Santa’s location will also be updated on Twitter with @noradsanta, and you can keep up with news about Santa’s flight with our real-time search feature.

To track Santa, visit www.noradsanta.org starting at 2 a.m. ET on Christmas Eve. There, you’ll see a Google Map that will display Santa’s location over the course of the day. To visualize Santa in Google Earth, just click “Track Santa in Google Earth” and you’ll see St. Nick flying through Google Earth in your browser. If you don’t have the Earth plug-in, click here—it will be installed automatically when you download Google Earth 5.1.