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NORAD's Santa trackers pull out high-tech stops

2:58 PM, Dec 24, 2011   |    comments
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Santa Claus waves as he stands with a reindeer and sled outside Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland on December 15, 2011. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
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    That's right. This Christmas, NORAD, the premier U.S.-Canadian air defense directorate, is once again using its super high-tech tracking equipment to keep tabs on jolly old Saint Nick.

    Volunteers NORAD Tracks Santa at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado were fielding 4,000 calls an hour Saturday morning, on pace to break a record. Santa's NORAD Facebook page exceeded 840,000 "likes" by midmorning.

    For 365 days of the year, NORAD is dead serious about tracking the skies over North America. But beginning at 3 a.m. Saturday, the generals and air-sovereignty commanders will be telling Virginia that, yes, there is a Santa Claus. And they've got the satellite tracking of his sleigh to prove it.

    This is the organization's 56th year of providing children with up-to-the-minute telemetry on Santa's whereabouts.

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    Calls to 1-877-Hi-NORAD will be answered by one of more than 1,200 volunteers who crowd into the call center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. For many it's a family Christmas tradition, says NORAD's Lt. Cmdr. Bill Lewis. Last year, the volunteers logged 80,000 calls, he says.

    Each year at www.noradsanta.org, families can track Santa's flight across the world - live. Last year the site had more than 15 million visitors.

    There's also a second-by-second Countdown to Track Santa clock. For kids who can't wait, a Kid's Countdown Village has links to holiday facts on Google Maps and North Pole-themed games. Clicking the house labeled 22 in the village opens up a "Super Top Secret NORAD File" featuring technical details of Santa's sleigh and reindeer.

    This year, the organization is also making a Track Santa app available for smartphones via Google Maps for mobile at the noradsanta.org site. They've written an "Elf Toss" game for phones, too.

    The calls have been a tradition since 1955. According to the story told by the Air Force's Col. Harry Shoup, the local Sears ran an ad that year in Colorado Springs telling local children they could call a number to hear where Santa was.

    But the number listed in the ad was one digit off and instead the red hotline phone rang at what was then Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's precursor. "It was kids calling looking to talk to Santa," Lewis says. In the spirit of Christmas, "instead of telling them they had the wrong number, Shoup told them where Santa was, and that's how the tradition started."

    (Copyright © 2011 USA TODAY and The Associated Press)

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