Question: I got a telescope for Christmas this year and I’m still learning how to use it. But it made me wonder, have you ever seen Santa’s flying sleigh with your telescope? — VO, New York, NY
Answer: I’m not positive, but I think I did see it once, many years ago, sometime in the early 1970’s. I had my camera attached to the telescope that night, and was taking photos of the Full Moon. Suddenly, this UFO passed right in front of the Moon. I managed to get only one quick shot, reproduced above.
I call it a “UFO” since it was a “flying object,” but I couldn’t positively “identify” it — it was moving too fast and got blurred in my photo. You can definitely see something that might be a sleigh moving past the lower edge of the Moon. But it could also be a flock of birds, or maybe even some weird shaped cloud.
Santa’s sleigh is not an easy thing to see for several reasons. First and foremost, it has no flashing lights, like all other aircraft are required to have by FAA regulations. Second, it’s not that large an object, even with 8 or 9 reindeer attached. Third, he only flies one night every year, and the night sky in December is often cloudy.
My first thought was it couldn’t be Santa’s sleigh, since it wasn’t Christmas Eve. This was December 23rd. What would Santa be doing up there? Exercising the reindeer? Practicing a dry run? Just out for a joy ride? Then I realized that, when it’s December 23rd here, it’s December 24th west of the International Date Line, and nighttime at that location on the globe. So he would have already been delivering presents in northern Asia.
If you’ve ever followed Google’s “Santa Tracker” on Christmas Eve, or NORAD’s Santa Tracker, you’ll see that he indeed starts at the International Date Line and works his way west from there. Of course, as Dec 24 steadily advances westward, he needs to move fast to keep up with the darkness of night and remain hidden from those who are still awake.
What happened late that night back in the 70’s was pure luck. I just happened to have my telescope pointed in the right direction. Whatever I saw, it was silhouetted against the bright lunar disc. I’ve seen this happen with birds and airplanes occasionally. But unless you’re set up for photography, there’s never enough time to get a camera attached to the telescope and take a picture. Events like this usually happen way too fast to react. So have I ever seen Santa’s sleigh? Yes … possibly, but I can’t say for sure.
Next Week in Sky Lights ⇒ Why the Year Starts on January 1st