As a child, I scoured the night sky on December 24 looking for Santa and his reindeer. My dedication paid off. When I was seven, I saw their dark shadows crossing a moonlit sky. Really! Nearly forty years later I remember the thrill of spotting the sleigh and calling members of my family to the large picture window in our living room so they could see, too. They arrived too late, though.
Usually it happens the other way around, with parents pointing out Santa and the kids getting to the window a moment too late to see. Thanks to modern technology and math, families can gather ’round a computer screen tracking Santa’s journey in real time with NORAD’s Santa Tracker. It’s a fun way to build up the dramatic tension as you wait for his Christmas visit. Still, after getting Santa and Company’s coordinates it might be nice to head to a window or even snuggle outside under the stars, if it’s not too cold where you live.
Santa’s got a pretty big trip to make all the way around the Earth. A fancy word for his trip is circumnavigating–or going around the circumference of–our planet. That distance around the Earth is figured out the same way you figure out the circumference of a playground ball. Okay, with a ball you might be able to use a tape measure. But there’s a mathematical formula that’s the same for a playground ball and a huge planet. And do you know that before there were computers and even before the first Christmas, a man figured out the circumference of the earth?
But that’s challenging math for a young child. Here’s some more practical Santa-spotting math.
When spotting distances in the sky, it’s helpful to talk about angles and degrees. This is easily explained with a protractor. What? You haven’t had a protractor since high school? Pick one up at an office supply store and add it to this year’s stocking stuffers with a set of colored pencils or markers. Your child can outline a protractor and draw big, goofy smiles, fabulous rainbows, and icy igloos. If your child doesn’t ask about the numbers on the instrument, you can bring them up casually at some point.
Back to those angles and degrees . . . Anything on the horizon is considered at zero degrees. What are some things you can observe at zero degrees? If you live in a flat area, your neighbor’s house might be at zero degree. If you don’t have a reference point in the night sky, you might stand under a tree and point to the top branches as being 90 degrees up.
Granted, Santa only comes one night a year, but you can practice these games indoors at any time. And if you’re looking for the excitement of spotting a moving object in the night sky to hone your Santa-watching skills for next year, click to find out when to look for the International Space Station to fly by your home.