Who’s that ping on the radar screen? Must be Santa Claus.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, is firing up its Santa tracker again this year to keep track of the jolly old elf’s path around the globe.

Tracking Santa has been a tradition since 1955, when a misprinted ad gave the phone number for what was then known as CONAD as the contact information for a Santa hotline. The director at the time, Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, directed those on duty to give Santa’s location on the radar to any child who called. The tradition has continued ever since.

This year, NORAD expects more than 1,500 volunteers to help with the effort, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, NORAD’s director of public affairs. Volunteers take two-hour shifts, and the command relies on partnerships to provide the all-day service without using taxpayer money.

NORAD, of course, keeps up its normal operations during its Santa watch. It is able to house those volunteers in a separate, non-classified facility on its base in Colorado.

Microsoft is the headline partner for this year’s effort, using its Azure cloud platform to help NORAD deal with the annual traffic spike it sees from the effort.

The command center has also rolled out a series of free game and tracking apps for Apple, Google Android and Microsoft phones, as well as Windows PCs, to make the effort more accessible for parents and kids. So far, Davis said, NORAD has seen more than 1.7 million app downloads across all devices.

“We’re excited about it and excited about supporting the folks who are out there 24/7,” said Tim Solms, Microsoft’s general manager for its business with the Defense Department.

NORAD worked with other partners, such as Colorado firm iLink Systems, to design some of its apps.

For the past five years, NORAD’s main partner has been Google. But after discussing the project with Google this year, Davis said, the two groups had different visions for the future of the tracker program and agreed to go their separate ways.

Davis said the split was amicable. Google’s partnership, he said, “helped us to increase the awareness of the program around the world, and we’re very grateful for their partnership.”

“Having a big team is important to us,” Davis said. “We want this to be done as a community service and avoid doing anything that would make it seem commercialized.”

Google is still continuing with its own version of the Santa Tracker this year, separate from NORAD, for those who want to stick with Google Maps as they follow Santa’s sleigh around the world.

Davis said called speculation that NORAD split with Google for financial reasons “hogwash,” and reiterated that NORAD does not make any money through the effort.

Davis said that the Santa Tracker is a favorite tradition and a welcome bit of fun into the demanding daily duties of monitoring U.S. airspace.

“We’re all volunteers who do this out of love for the program and a desire to serve the community,” he said.

Parents and kids interested in following Santa on his flight around the world can check in over the NORAD apps on the Apple, Google and Microsoft app stores, send an e-mail to noradtrassanta@outlook.com or call in at 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) for updates.

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