Holidays in Philly

NORAD’s famous Santa tracker is powered by Philly tech

More than 15 million people use the 3D globe to track St. Nick’s path, which developers refuse to admit isn’t real.

NORAD's Santa tracker is powered by Philly

NORAD's Santa tracker is powered by Philly

Billy Penn illustration

On Christmas Eve, at least 15 million people all over the world tuned into the official, government-sanctioned Santa Tracker run by the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Did you know it was all made possible by a Philly startup?

The NORAD tracker has been around since the ’50s. Back then, it was a hotline kids could call to check the progress of the big bearded dude who supposedly delivered presents.

Since then, the service has evolved quite a bit — it now includes a smartphone app with a three-dimensional globe where kids can watch Santa’s travels in real time. Turns out that latest advancement was introduced by the Philadelphia tech company Cesium.

“When you log in and see the 3D Santa flying around the earth, that’s the part that I’m responsible for,” lead software developer Hannah Pinkos told Billy Penn from her office at the East Market coworking space The Yard.

Thanks to Cesium’s 22-person team, you can watch Mr. Claus air-sled ’round the globe live on your web browser (or your smartphone). Added bonus: fun animations like glitter and snowfall.

Like most things that matter, the super-popular Christmas Eve tradition as we now know it would not be possible without good, old fashioned Philadelphia innovation.

Cesium developer Hannah Pinkos

Cesium developer Hannah Pinkos

Eddy Marenco

Developer: Santa is totally real

Generally this software is a lot like Google Earth. It’s a 3D globe that uses satellite imaging to help you visualize the planet from your desktop.

But Cesium’s version is unique. When it was born in 2011, it was the first interactive, digital earth that you could peruse entirely online. Other programs have since caught up — including the aforementioned Google version — but for a time, Cesium’s was the only globe you could run straight from your browser.

“You didn’t have to download or install anything,” Pinkos said. “We really pioneered this.”

Cesium made its name in the Christmas timekeeping game because its parent company, the Exton-based Analytical Graphics Incorporated, is an aerospace innovation firm.

AGI helped develop the first real-time Santa tracker in 1997, working with NORAD to deploy it as a fun side project. A decade later, the tech company spun off one of its projects, CesiumJS, and turned it into an independent working group. In 2012, that group jumped onto the multi-nation Santa tracker beat and gave it a fancy 3D upgrade.

While we’re here, let’s get one thing straight: The Philly tech pioneers refused to depart from their script. They insist the mythical North Pole dweller is 100% real — and on his busiest workday, it requires military-grade technology to keep tabs on him.

“NORAD has all these sensors around the globe for tracking missiles to keep us safe,” Pinkos said. “They use those same sensors to track Santa’s real position.”

Nonbelievers be damned, the software was officially up and running starting at midnight on Christmas Eve. You can follow along Santa’s journey for the rest of the day — and you’ll have plenty of company.

“When I meet new people and they hear I worked on the app, they’re like, ‘Oh, my kids love the app,’ or ‘I remember doing that when I was a kid,'” she said. “It’s really exciting to be a part of so many peoples Christmases.”

Want some more? Explore other Holidays in Philly stories.

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