NORAD Hopes Santa Isn't Hit by the Telescope Launch on Christmas Eve

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The 2018 NORAD Tracks Santa Operation Center is shown on Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
A photo shows the 2018 NORAD Tracks Santa Operation Center on Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, on Dec. 24. (Staff Sgt. Alexandra M. Longfellow/U.S. Air Force photo)

Santa may need to put his reindeer on high alert this Christmas Eve to ensure he doesn't collide with another high-flying object this year -- NASA's long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope.

At 7:20 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, just as Jolly St. Nick should be delivering toys to children in the Eastern Pacific, the world's largest, most powerful space telescope is scheduled to shoot into orbit around the sun aboard an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket launched from French Guiana.

It may be the first time Santa will need to keep his eyes on a rocket that can fly more than 10,000 meters per second that's carrying a payload weighing roughly 14,300 pounds. 

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But officials at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which will begin tracking Santa across the globe beginning at 6 a.m. EST on Dec. 24, believe the old man will be ready.

"Santa is an excellent pilot, and he certainly can maneuver and dodge anything that flies his way," NORAD spokeswoman Air Force Capt. Sable Brown told Military.com.

The launch of the telescope has been delayed several times since 2018, most recently last week when it was shifted from Dec. 22 to Christmas Eve as the result of a problem with a data cable.

NASA officials said the team is not taking any chances on getting the 30-year project into space.

"We are absolutely not taking any risks with Webb because this is already risky enough. So we are making absolutely sure that everything works," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science missions, in announcing the delay.

Santa, however, doesn't seem to scare NASA.

"There's so much riding on this," NASA administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press, "opening up just all kinds of new understanding and revelations about the universe."

The launch adds a twist to NORAD's 66th year of tracking Santa -- an effort that began in 1955 when Air Force Col. Harry Shoup answered the phone at the command's predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command Operations Center, and was asked if he was Santa.

The caller, a child, had seen a newspaper ad that accidentally had listed the command's number as a point of contact for Santa, according to the Air Force. Not wanting to be a Scrooge, Shoup answered that he was not, but his command was keeping tabs on the red-suited, flying benefactor.

Shoup then directed others working that evening to say the command was tracking Santa, and a tradition was born.

This year, nearly 600 volunteers will make the NORADSanta.org website and app come alive, answering phone calls made to 1-877-Hi-NORAD, or 1-877-446-6723, beginning at 6:00 a.m. Dec. 24.

As with last year, pandemic protocols will be in place, with calls handled by volunteers all snug in their Who Houses.

The website and app will show Santa's location in real time as he crosses the globe and reaches the U.S. 

"Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, NORAD defends North America by tracking airplanes, missiles, space launches and anything else that flies in or around the North American continent," said Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, NORAD commander, in a press release.

"As we have since 1955, this December 24th we are once again ready for our no-fail mission of tracking Santa, " VanHerck said.

According to NORAD, the command uses its North Warning System, with 47 installations across Alaska and northern Canada, to pick up Santa as soon as he leaves the North Pole.

Officials then track him via satellites using infrared sensors, which can detect the signal coming off Rudolph's nose.

Visual confirmation is achieved by pilots in Air Force F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-22 Raptor fighter jets, as well as Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornets.

The pilots rendezvous with Santa off the coast of Newfoundland to welcome him to North America and "escort him safely through North American airspace until he returns to the North Pole," according to NORAD.

The effort has become exceedingly high tech. In addition to the website, there's an available app, and the navigation service OnStar, as well as Amazon Alexa, are programmed to help track Santa.

In 2020, 11 million visitors from more than 200 countries and territories visited the NORAD Santa tracking website and the call center received more than 20,000 calls, according to NORAD, while Alexa answered 12.3 million queries to locate Santa and OnStar got 12,400 requests.

Santa tracking also is available on Facebook @noradsanta, @NoradTracksSanta_Official on Instagram and @noradsanta on Twitter.

In addition to tracking Santa on Christmas Eve, NORAD definitely will be monitoring the space telescope launch, as it does with every missile and rocket launch that occurs around the globe, Brown said.

"We will assure Santa's safety for every adult and child who believes in him," Brown said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the rocket's speed.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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