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Tracking Santa -- An Interview with the Head Researcher

Summary: 
Every year since 1998, the Department of Energy's Los Alamos lab has been using state of the art technology to track Santa Claus as he circles the globe the night before Christmas.

Cross posted from the Energy Blog.

Every year since 1998, the Department of Energy's Los Alamos lab has been using state of the art technology to track Santa Claus as he circles the globe the night before Christmas. You'll be able to start monitoring St. Nick's journey here starting at 6 AM ET on Christmas Eve.

This week, I got a chance to talk to Santa Tracker Head Researcher (and Cibola Flight Experiment Project Leader) Diane Roussel-Dupre to get a little more insight into the program.
 
Q: How did you get into this line of work? Did you always expect Santa tracking to be a core specialty in your career?

Diane Roussel-Dupre: Developing and flying small experimental satellites to help keep America safer has been a unique career opportunity never envisioned when I was in school.  When we first started tracking Santa, we did so to help with his flight safety just in case he had troubles along the way.

Q: What is the hardest part of keeping track of Santa?

Diane Roussel-Dupre: Because of his wish to surprise, Santa does not file a flight path with the Federal Aviation Administration, so we never really know where he will be.

Q: What technologies do you use?

Diane Roussel-Dupre: We believe that Rudolph's glowing, bright red nose puts out optical and infrared light that makes him easy to detect, allowing an optical camera on FORTE to give us a glimpse of Santa and his team. Also, the Federal Aviation Administration requires Santa to fly with a radio transponder on his sleigh, similar to what airplanes use, to ensure flight safety around the world. This transponder can be detected with the radio receiver that flies on-board both the FORTE and Cibola Flight Experiment (CFE) satellites. We will also be using the star cameras on the CFE satellite to look for Rudolph and the rest of the reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh.

Q: Are those technologies advancing each year? Would you consider them clean technologies at this point?

Diane Roussel-Dupre: Because it takes a long time to develop, launch and fly a satellite, it is sometimes difficult to be able to have the most advanced technology in space to use to track Santa. However, our newest small satellite, Cibola Flight Experiment, launched March 2007 has a new type of on-board supercomputer that enables us to continuously develop new capabilities after launch to enhance our ability to search for Santa. Because we can continue to advance our detection capability with this new computer, new launches are not as necessary. Thus, if adopted by other space projects, the Cibola Flight Experiment technology can provide significant cost savings in addition to being green. We would like to be able to launch and fly a much smaller satellite (10cm x 10cm x 30cm) based upon improved CFE technologies in the future to allow us to continue to help track Santa as our older satellites reach old age and are turned off.

Q:  Do you think Santa knows you're able to monitor his movements and does he mind?

Diane Roussel-Dupre: Santa certainly knows he is being monitored as he travels around the world and Mrs. Claus is happy there are additional "elves" like us helping to assure his safe travels. However we occasionally notice Santa in an evasive maneuver, trying to throw off our ability to track him just to see if we can keep up with him.

Q: I'll be in Durham, New Hampshire, for Christmas this year. What time can I tell my nephew and niece to expect Santa's visit?

Diane Roussel-Dupre: Santa always does his best to arrive around local midnight, so they had better be in bed already with no peaking. And don't forget the cookies and milk.