The countdown clock is ticking at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) as it prepares for its annual tradition of tracking Santa Claus as he makes his way around the globe.

NORAD uses some high-tech systems to track Santa’s sleigh — radar, satellites, Santa Cams and fighter jets — and has teamed up again this year with Google, which will be tracking Santa in real time starting at 2 a.m., Eastern on Dec. 24. Google Maps will have all the necessary flight information, or you can tune in to a 3D feed via Google Earth. Parents with eager kids can plot out the exact right time to chill the milk and cool the cookies by using the Google Maps mobile site as well, by searching for “[santa]” on their smartphones.

You can also call NORAD for the latest news of Santa’s flight. The NORAD Tracks Santa Operations Center will be open from 6 a.m. Eastern on Dec. 24 to 5 a.m. Eastern on Dec. 25. Call 877-HI-NORAD (877-446-6723) toll-free or try 719-556-5211 from Colorado Springs or overseas. Last year, first lady Michelle Obama answered calls from kids wanting to know Santa’s position, so you never know who will pick up when you call the hotline.

The country has been tracking Santa’s path since 1955, when a Sears Roebuck ad in Colorado Springs, Colo., misprinted their Santa hotline number. Calls poured in to the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) and its director of operations, Col. Harry Shoup. Shoup tapped into his own “Yes, Virginia” spirit, and a tradition was born. NORAD has run the program since it replaced CONAD in 1958.

(You can find a charming audio clip of Shoup describing the first call at the official NORAD Santa Web site, if you’re interested in the history.)

The NORAD Tracks Santa program is supported by over 1,200 Canadian and American uniformed personnel and Department of Defense workers who volunteer to field calls and e-mails, and by corporate contributors, such as Avaya.

According to the NORAD Tracks Santa Web site, radar gives NORAD the first indication that Santa has taken off from the North Pole. NORAD uses, in addition to Santa cams and a fighter jet escort, geosynchronous satellites equipped with infrared sensors that can zero in on — “Amazingly, Rudolph’s bright red nose gives off an infrared signature, which allows our satellites to detect Rudolph and Santa,” the site says.

Related stories:

Holiday Guide 2011

Ideas@Innovations: Siri becomes Santa’s latest helper in new Apple ad

Video: Secret Santa pays off layaway bills