Dec 24, 1999

Interplanetary Christmas

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In an exclusive interview with Science@NASA, Santa discusses his plans for Christmas on future space colonies
Interplanetary Santa, by artist Duane Hilton.
December 24, 1999: On Christmas Eve, the Jolly Old Elf will brush the fireplace ash out of his beard, don his famous red suit, and begin the serious work of delivering presents all over the world. It's a job he's done in the same way for a long, long time, but times may be changing. As humans and space probes travel to other worlds, the possibility of Christmas on other planets can no longer be ignored, and the prospect of delivering presents throughout the solar system is, well, turning Santa's hair white.

Right: Artist Duane Hilton's concept of Santa and his reindeer as they deliver Christmas presents to future space colonies.

In an exclusive interview, Science@NASA visited Santa Claus at his secret North Pole workshop. He took a break from final preparations to talk about how he'll maintain his legendary delivery system as humankind inhabits other worlds.
The Earth and Moon as viewed by the
Galileo spacecraft
"The Moon won't be too much of a challenge," Santa told us. "I figure the lunar colonies will keep Earth time, so I'll just add them to my route. The reindeer will gripe about having to put on spacesuits, but we'll get used to it."
"Mars is going to start to stretch us a bit. See, it takes 687 days to go around the Sun. That's about two of our Earth years. So every other year I'll have two Christmas runs to make, the Earth-Moon run and the Mars run. We'll really have to 'haul Rudolph,' as the reindeer are fond of saying. Fortunately, a Martian day is 37 minutes longer than an Earth day, so we can still do our usual overnight delivery. Some of the planets have much shorter days than Earth! One thing that will help is NASA's new 3D maps of Mars. It's hard to get lost with that kind of data! ... Excuse me a moment."

One of the senior elves was asking about overtime to complete a special batch of toys.

"I worry about the elves," Santa continued. "They count on a slack period to fix the factory and invent new toys for next year. I'll have to hire more helpers if we're going to service the Moon and Mars, too."

What about the other planets?
Ultraviolet image of Venus from the Pioneer Venus orbiter in 1979
"Well, I've given them some thought", explained Santa. "Take Venus, for example. It's a tough environment - high temperatures, and a thick, choking carbon dioxide atmosphere. Plus, the clouds are made of sulfuric acid. Talk about air pollution. Venus circles the sun every 224 days, so Christmas will come about every eight Earth months. That's a little more often than we're used to here on Earth, but it'll be easy to deliver all the presents in one night. Venus's day is 243 times longer than ours. I'll have all the time in the world - their world - to deliver. Everyone gets their presents on the same day, no matter when I deliver. Ho, ho, ho! It also spins the wrong way, I hope that doesn't make the reindeer sick!"
Mosaic of Mercury from the Mariner 10 spacecraft
"Now, the closest planet to the Sun is Mercury," he went on, wagging his finger. Santa really knew a lot about the solar system.

"You'd think that Mercury would be the hottest planet, but Venus is actually a little warmer because of the greenhouse effect in its carbon dioxide atmosphere. That's not to say Mercury isn't hot -- it's scorching! Daytime temperatures reach 500 degrees C. The appealing thing about Mercury, at least for the kids, is that the planet's year is just 88 Earth days long. Imagine that! Christmas every 88 days. It's a bit too often if you ask me, but that's gravity for you."

Santa paused for a moment.
Montage of Jupiter and its 4 largest satellites.
"Jupiter's the big challenge. If we actually build colonies on that planet, I'll have less than 10 hours to deliver everything. Nine hours and 55 minutes, to be exact. The giant planet is 11 times wider than Earth, but it rotates more than twice as fast!"

"Jupiter doesn't have a solid surface, so any future colonies will probably be suspended in the clouds. Jupiter's atmosphere is made of hydrogen, helium, methane, and ammonia. It's pretty toxic but not nearly as bad as Venus's atmosphere. We'll need special protective suits for both planets, which is bad news because the reindeer hate wearing anything besides bells."

"Jupiter is so far away I think I'll turn Europa, the third largest moon, into a branch office. It's entirely covered with ice, just like the North Pole here on Earth, so the elves would feel right at home."

"Of course we'll probably steer clear of Europa's neighbor Io," continued Santa. "Did you catch the latest Galileo images? Superheated lava pools, volcanoes erupting all over. It's not exactly the North Pole, if you know what I mean. Actually there is some snow on Io but it's all made of smelly sulfur compounds."

Santa paused again to initial some requisitions for spare parts for the sled.
Montage of Saturn and its largest satellites.
"You know, it's a shame that Saturn is so far away," he went on wistfully. "What a lovely planet.... I'd love to cruise around those rings in my sleigh. But it's 9.5 times farther from the sun than Earth. It'll be a while before we have colonies out there," he opined.

"Uranus and Neptune are just the same. Pretty planets, nice gas giants, but very far away. Uranus has some pretty nasty storms, by the way -- have you seen those Space Telescope pictures?" he asked. "Mrs Claus says they're even better than the Weather Channel!"

"Now just suppose I was way out there at Uranus delivering toys, and I was ready to fly home. Uranus is 19 times farther from the sun than our planet. Do you realize it'll take almost 7 hours for me to radio a message back home? I always send Mrs. Claus a message to start warming up the hot cocoa, just before I head back to the North Pole. Why, I'll be home before the message arrives!" he exclaimed.

Did that mean that Santa can travel faster than light? Wouldn't that violate the laws of physics? Before we could pursue this amazing revelation, the Jolly Old Elf's face brightened, and he went on:
Pluto as viewed by the Hubble space telescope.
"Pluto... now that's the one that really interests me. It's the most distant planet by far, 39 times farther from the Sun than Earth. It takes 247 Earth years to go around the Sun just once. Think of it -- only one Christmas every 247 years! Plenty of time to retool between holidays. And the Plutonian day lasts six Earth days and 18 hours. I could really take my time delivering gifts. Not that it would take long anyway. Pluto's the tiniest planet in the solar system. Why, some people claim it's not a planet at all. Silly, that's what I say...of course it's a planet!"

"Pluto's got real possibilities," he warmed to his theme. "I say we've got to hurry up with planetary exploration. Mars tomorrow, then Jupiter and onward to Pluto! Once we get to Pluto, I might just set up shop there and the human race can keep my calendar. Christmas once every 247 years. That might make things a bit easier - I'm not as young as I once was...." Santa looked thoughtful.


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Christmas only once every 247 years? Was Santa serious? Suddenly an impish smile crossed his face. "Now how many children would stand for Christmas once every 247 years?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye. "I suppose we'll just have to keep doing it once a year as always."

Just then Mrs. Claus quietly appeared from the kitchen and thrust a bag of cookies into our hands.

"You really must go, dears," she said. "He has a long night ahead of him, after all." We went to the front door and bade our farewells. The stars shone brightly in the clear Arctic sky. As we turned to our dog sleds to begin our journey home, we heard Santa's voice boom from within: "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!" External Web Links The Nine Planets - Pictures and facts about the all the planets and their moons Solar System Photo Gallery - from the National Space Science Data Center


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Author: Dave Dooling, Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: Frank Rose