Merriment in milliseconds; the science behind Santa’s speed

If you hear a sonic boom tonight, or see a burning object shooting through the night sky, it’s not an asteroid plummeting toward Earth. Relax, it’s just Santa.

That noise and flames are two of the phenomena that attend St. Nicks’s annual gift-giving excursion are conclusions that two Long Beach State professors reached when trying to determine the physics surrounding the annual Christmas Eve journey of the jolly guy.

Thomas Gredig and Galen Pickett, professors in CSULB’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, were asked by the department to explain how Santa’s sleigh doesn’t hit the ground.

The two worked remotely due to the pandemic but were able to come to some striking conclusions, including the finding that Santa travels at over 323 times the speed of sound, and he has to have a very special skeletal structure to survive his annual ride. The professors published their findings last week.

The answer, they found, was partially within Sir Isaac Newton’s 2nd Law dealing with acceleration and it being tied to an object’s mass and net force. In this case, Gredig based his calculations on the expected weight of Santa’s sleigh combined with a little bit of holiday magic provided by the nine reindeer that pull it.

In order for the sleigh to remain suspended in air it needs to be traveling at 8,000 meters per second, or about 20 times the speed of a typical commercial airplane.

At that speed there would be a boom created by its traveling velocity but, racket aside, it would allow Santa to move from house to house making his deliveries in just 1 millisecond per household. He could finish his work in the entire city of Long Beach in mere seconds.

The idea is that the sleigh would act much as a satellite does, traveling at a constant speed orbiting the Earth allowing for proper present drop-off. Too slow could send the sleigh crashing to the ground, too fast would see it launch out of the Earth’s atmosphere, Gredig explained.

But if the sleigh is traveling at the same speed without stopping how does Santa get the gifts under everyone’s trees?

“We thought maybe he’s dropping packages from his sleigh into chimneys from his satellite orbit,” Gredig said. “And that he has really good aim.” Apparently a smidgeon of faith remains part of the equation.

Another issue Gredig pointed out, is the fact that Santa would have to make an awful lot of hairpin turns, which Pickett calculated would generate about 200,000 tons of weight, depending on how many presents are in his sleigh.

The force generated by zigging and zagging through cities to ensure all presents are delivered would create about 10,000 Gs of force Pickett said. An ordinary human can handle about 9 Gs.

“An ordinary human body can’t support that,” Pickett said. “Santa would be squashed flat. He’d no longer be a jolly old elf with a belly full of jelly. He’d just be jelly.”

This problem has led Pickett to believe that Santa has to have some advanced superpowers to withstand the rigors of present distribution.

Pickett said that Santa would have to have an adamantium/unobtanium/beskar steel skeleton with some additional supports to ensure his internal organs are not squished during his Christmas Eve ride.

He could have also been bitten by a radioactive reindeer before morphing into the superhuman that he is today.

While settling how fast a sleigh would have to be pulled to stay off the ground the project also may have shed light on the true identity of Santa. In addition to his roles as head elf, expert toy maker and logistics professional he likely is from this planet and studied up on advanced sciences.

“It’s quite possible that Santa Claus may just be from the Earth,” Gredig said. “He could be an aerospace engineer.”

But what keeps him from bursting into flames while traveling at such high rates of speed?

“That’s a problem for next year,” Pickett said.

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.

Jason Ruiz has been covering City Hall for the Post for nearly a decade. A Long Beach resident, Ruiz graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. He and his wife Kristina and, most importantly, their dog Mango, live in Long Beach. He is a particularly avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and the UCLA Bruins, which is why he sometimes comes to work after the weekend in a grumpy mood.