Finding alien megastructures around nearby pulsars

Finding alien megastructures around nearby pulsars
Artist's representation of a Dyson ring, orbiting a star at a distance of 1 AU. Credit: WIkipedia Commons/Falcorian

During the 1960s, Freeman Dyson and Nikolai Kardashev captured the imaginations of people everywhere by making some radical proposals. Whereas Dyson proposed that intelligent species could eventually create megastructures to harness the energy of their stars, Kardashev offered a three-tiered classification system for intelligent species based on their ability to harness the energy of their planet, solar system and galaxy, respectively.

With missions that are now capable of locating extra-solar planets (i.e. the Kepler Space Observatory) scientists have been on the lookout for signs of possible alien megastructures. Unfortunately, aside from some very arguable results, no concrete evidence has yet come to light. Lucky for us, in a study from the Free University of Tbilisi, Professor Zaza Osmanov offers some new insight on why megastructures may have eluded us so far.

While fascinating, the idea of alien megastructures invariably suffers from the same problem as all other attempts to find signs of in our Universe. Basically, if intelligent life exists, why have we consistently failed to find any evidence of it? This conundrum, which was summed up by Enrico Fermi in the 1950s (thereafter known as the Fermi Paradox), has hung like a shadow over all our efforts.

For example, in the summer of 2015, a team of astronomers announced that they found what might be an indication of an alien megastructure around Tabby's Star (KIC 8462852). However, they were quick to point out that any number of possibilities could explain the strange dimming pattern coming from the star, and subsequent studies offered even more plausible explanations – such as the star having consumed a planet at some point in its past.

Finding alien megastructures around nearby pulsars
Artist’s impression of an orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments around Tabby’s Star. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To this, Osmanov has argued that the problem is that we are looking in the wrong places. Last year, he wrote a research paper in which he ventured that an alien super civilization – i.e. one that was consistent with a Level II Kardashev civilization – would likely use ring-like megastructures to harness the power of their stars. This is in contrast to the traditional concept of a "Dyson's Sphere", which would consist of a spherical shell.

Furthermore, he argued that these Dyson Rings would likely be built around pulsars rather than stars, and offered estimates on their dimensions which were dependent on the rotational speed of the . According to Osmanov's latest study, titled "Are the Dyson rings around pulsars detectable?", Osmanov extends the problem of spotting alien megastructures to the observational realm.

Specifically, he addressed how alien megastructures could be spotted by identifying their infrared energy signatures, and at what kinds of distances. By examining how such structures would vary in terms of the amount of IR radiation they would emit, he believes that they could be spotted within our local Universe using existing instruments.

Once again, it comes down to the diameter of the structures, which would in turn depend on the type of pulsar they orbit. As he states in the paper:

Finding alien megastructures around nearby pulsars
rtist’s impression of the exotic double object that consists of a tiny neutron star orbited every two and a half hours by a white dwarf star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
"A couple of years earlier before publishing the paper of Kardashev, the prominent physicist Freeman Dyson has suggested that if such superadvanced (in the terminology of Kardashev, Level-II) extraterrestrials exist, for increasing efficiency of energy consumption they can construct a thin spherical shell with radius ?1AU surrounding a host star (Dyson 1960). It has been argued that for such distances the sphere will be in the so-called habitable zone (HZ) and therefore the sphere will have the temperature of the order of (200 – 300 K), making this object visible in the infrared spectrum."

Extending this to pulsars, Osmanov estimates that the habitable zone around a relatively slowly-rotating pulsar (with a period of about half a second) would be on the order of 0.1 AU. According to his calculations, a ring-like megastructure that orbited a pulsar at this distance would emit temperatures on the order of 390 K (116.85 °C; 242.33 °F), which means that the megastructure would be visible in the IR band.

From this, Osmanov concludes that modern IR telescopes – such as the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) – would have the necessary capacity to monitor nearby pulsars for signs of alien megastructures. He further concludes that for this purpose, these telescopes would have an effective range of up to 200 parsecs (~652 light years).

In addition, he goes on to state that within this volume of space, multiple candidates could be found and examined using these same existing instruments:

Finding alien megastructures around nearby pulsars
Ever since it was first announced in 2015, there has been speculation as to what could account for the dimming of KIC 8462852. Credit: Eburacum45/
"We have considered the sensitivity of VLTI and by taking into account its higher possible angular resolution, 0.001 mas, it has been shown that the maximum distance ~0.2 kpc leads to the IR spectral density of the order of 7.4 mJy, which in turn, can be detected by the VLTI. We have argued that by monitoring the nearby zone of the solar system approximately 64 pulsars are expected to be located inside it."

Beyond these distances, up to the kiloparsec range (about 3260 light years), the angular resolution of these telescopes would not be enough to detect the structure of any rings. As such, finding megastructures at this distance would require telescopes that can conduct surveys in the UV band – which corresponds to the surface temperatures of neutron stars (7000 K). However, this would have to wait upon the development of more sensitive instruments.

"As we see, the search of infrared rings is quite promising for distances up to -0.2 kpc, where one will be able to monitor potentially 64 ± 21 pulsars by using the IR instruments," he concluded. "Observation of distant pulsars (up to -1kpc), although will significantly increase the total number of potential objects – to 1600 ± 530, but at this moment the UV instruments cannot provide such a level of sensitivity."

So while the range would be limited, the opportunities for testing this hypothesis would not. All told, between 43 and 85 candidates exist within the observable volume of space, according to Osmanov's estimates. And with existing IR telescopes – and next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescopes – up to the task, some surveys could be conducted that would yield valuable information either way.

Finding alien megastructures around nearby pulsars
There are Dyson rings and spheres and this, an illustration of a Dyson swarm. Could this or a variation of it be what we’re detecting around KIC? Not likely, but a fun thought experiment. Credit: Falcorian/Wikipedia Commons

The concept of alien megastructures remains a controversial one, and for good reason. For one, the potential evidence for such structures – i.e. the periodic dimming of a star – can easily be explained by other means. Second, there is an undeniable degree of wishful thinking when it comes to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, which means that any findings could be subject to bias.

Nevertheless, the search for intelligent life remains a very fascinating field of study, and a necessary one at that. Not only would finding other examples of life in our Universe put to rest one of the most burning existential questions of all time – are we alone? – it would also allow us to learn a great deal about what other forms life could take. Is all life carbon based, are there other possibilities, etc? We would like to know!

In the end, the Fermi Paradox will only be resolved when we find definitive evidence that there is intelligent life out there other than our own. In the meantime, we can expect that we will keep searching until we find something. And anything that make this easier by telling us where we should (and what specifically to look for) is sure to help.

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More information: Are the Dyson rings around pulsars detectable?
Source: Universe Today
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May 16, 2017
I would think that a pulsar would radiate too much in the UV and X-ray ranges and not necessarily the light range that would be healthy for life. Otherwise the basic ideas would apply, however, personally I would look for a nice cool, non-flaring star before I built anything around it.

The stability of the star as well as the spectrum of light and any possible harmful radiations are all things that must be considered, as well as questions like is there a star that will go supernova nearby? Lot to think about and it may be easier to just go underground into the crust of planets and moons rather than build megastructures, especially as material strengths decrease over size by scaling. This is a major constraint.

May 16, 2017
On the other hand, when dealing with possible super-advanced aliens, it's tough to say what is possible or not. Maybe they are AI devices that somehow thrive on energy in any form, even hard radiation. Maybe they are adapted to environments, by some means unknown to us, that would fry any organic life. In that case, we might not be finding them because we are looking in places that seem congenial to us. Hard to say what a million or even billion years of technology would produce. One thing you can do, based on lack of evidence so far, is rule out exponential growth. At least, not over the entire lifespan of such a species.

May 16, 2017
Super, more pontifications by the scifientists. And this is supposedly a science site. Laughable!

May 16, 2017
is rule out exponential growth

Please clarify what type growth your referring to.

unless it's just art.

Now there is a guy with brains! Except that any civilization that advanced would avoid giving away their existance to anything smarter or dumber. So sorry no stellar art work. :-( No unnatural radiation of ANY kind.
Which by the way, is why we will never spot advanced civilizations unless we are more advanced than them.

May 16, 2017
Dyson sphere's/rings are idiotic!!!!
If you have this kind of ability surely they would have mastered fusion by then, and not need such ridiculous structures. Wouldn't like to be on the ring, when rocks, asteroids, comets make their way towards it let alone the radiation from the star and universe. Can you imagine building such a thing, to get all that material into a solar orbit???

A Dyson ring/sphere sounds like one of Donald Trumps election promises ;-) It's going to be great, best Dyson ring ever. Mars will pay for it

May 16, 2017

1, - Dyson sphere's/rings are idiotic!!!!
2. - mastered fusion by then,
3. - Can you imagine building such a thing, to get all that material into a solar orbit???
4. - A Dyson ring/sphere sounds like one of Donald Trumps election promises ;-) It's going to be great, best Dyson ring ever. Mars will pay for it

1st. - they are not idiotic - just not sophisticated enough for a civilization advanced enough to build it.
2nd - We are capable of mastering fusion now, so by then fusion will be a very old and outdated technology
3rd - "get all that material into a solar orbit." Why would you do that when you can make it out of energy right where you need it?
4th "Mars will pay for it" - Tell me, are you enough of a man/woman to admit you were wrong about President Trump when Mexico pays for the wall?

May 16, 2017
Yeah, right after Trump releases his tax returns like he said he would. Before we all knew the Russian income on them would show he's Putin's asset. You're not man enough to admit you voted a traitor into the White House (against the majority), why would anyone take your challenge seriously?

Mexico pays for the wall?

May 17, 2017

why would anyone take your challenge seriously?

It's a little early to be fearful you might have to back down, don't you think?
Besides I know how much you feel privacy is important to freedom. Actually you probably feel it is the most important thing about a free country.
So I am sure you value anyones right to privacy as if it was a constitutional right.
Then why do you insist on seeing PRESIDENT Trumps private tax returns?
Isn't it enough every president get a IRS audit every year, so you know nothing illegal is being hidden?

May 17, 2017
Trump is a Russian agent. He lost the vote, but (like the previous catastrophic Republican you voted for twice) he scammed in through non-democratic means - just like a Russian agent, but some of the votes he got he scammed by promising to release his tax returns but didn't. I want to see the Russians who have propped up his lies about being rich, and I want the rest of America to see it too. It might have been enough for only the FBI to see his tax returns privately in the context of its official investigation into Trump's Russian treason, but Trump fired the FBI director to stop the investigation so that's no longer sufficient. A Russian agent in the presidency is a dire national security catastrophe that's more important than Trump's privacy.

Again, I'm not afraid of anything. You're projecting again. And this time you've revealed yourself to be a Russian agent yourself, peddling your spin. If you're an American citizen you're a traitor.

It's a little early

May 17, 2017
The idea of Dyson spheres or rings or bracelets or whatever doesn't make any sense to me. It posits that a species is so hugely advanced as to construct something like this to put its surface in the 'habitable zone' but at the same time so primitive as to be physically dependent on living in the habitable zone.

I'd think that bodily alteration to the point where one is basically immune/indifferent to a huge range of environmental conditions (maybe even to being able to survive in the vacuum of space unaided) comes far, far, FAR earlier than being able to build megastructures of these types.

And at the point where you no longer care about the environment being suited for you the entire idea of building ANY structure becomes moot.

So I don't think we're looking in the wrong spots. I think we're looking for something that no one would need/want/bother to build.

May 17, 2017
Oh, so Russians who agree with you are the intelligent ones, right. And Russia's free and independent media was the source of that documentary, not more Putin propaganda, sure.

Trump himself admitted in public that he fired the FBI director because Trump didn't like the Russia investigation (even after his high ranking lackeys, including Exxon CEO / Secretary of State / $500 BILLION dealmaker when Trump lifts the sanctions, said that wasn't the reason). Of course that is the reason - there can be no doubt. Now Trump's new lackey can delete the investigations before they nail down impeachable evidence.

Trump's career before this is documented as a series of huge failures. He made less of his inherited fortune than handing it to an average money manager would have, including $BILLIONS in bankruptcies. His son admitted he was dependent in 2016 on Russian income.

You are willfully blind.

I watched

May 17, 2017
I dunno, maybe these alien intelligences retained their culture that values living in the habitable zone. Fusion is highly efficient, but not infinite, so investing fusion (or more advanced but still limited methods) in Dyson harnesses to the already existing ginormous fusion of a star still seems like a least-energy approach. Or maybe they make Dyson harnesses not for themselves but rather for cultivating biological zoos/farms, a la Niven's Ringworld.

The idea

May 17, 2017
I dunno, maybe these alien intelligences retained their culture that values living in the habitable zone.

We're already meddeling in genes and artificial augmentations, and we're really quite a ways away (to put it mildly) from building solar-system-spanning megastructures. I'm not sure what the point would be of conserving one's form on such a primitive level. At some point the advantages of (artificial) evolution are just so great that you're faced with the choice:

- become (near) immortal/invulnerable
- stay with all the vulnerabilities of the original form (even if that form were near immortal save for accidents: if a random accident can kill you then even if such an accident or environmental coincidence only happens every 10k years it's an unacceptable risk)

I also don't buy into "more advanced species need ever more power". Industrialized nations on Earth are already flattening out with their power needs. Efficiency gains are already negating that need.

May 17, 2017
Well, "mo' energy, mo' problems": We don't know what larger enterprises requiring stellar resources these speculated alien intelligences might be engaged in. Or whether they're building Dyson spheres to hide the star and whatever they're doing with it, a la some of Stross' aliens in _Accelerando_.

We also have no reason to believe "advanced" is linear, so that alien intelligences would gain control over their genetics (or whatever determines their physical manifestation) before achieving Dyson harness construction capability. They might be more conservative of their physical manifestation than the manipulation of solar system material.

Especially if intelligence is relatively common in (or beyond) our galaxy, even if such alternate development paths are rare there could still be some intelligences (or just one, perhaps wide ranging) that build one or more harnesses.

This mind game can't determine definite conditions, merely possibilities.


May 17, 2017
We don't know what larger enterprises requiring stellar resources

If something requires stellar resources then why site the 'collector' at 1AU? Building much closer would require a lot less material.

But just going from past experience: So far everything that we've thrown vast amounts of energy at at first has become vastly more efficient over time. Also note that a sun is a pretty inefficient fusion power generator (thankfully, or ours would have burned out long ago). If they can do fusion - which *we* almost can - and they need 'stellar amounts of power' then a much, MUCH smaller generator with high efficiency would do the trick. Something that is most certainly easier to build than a sun-covering collector array.

...always assuming that there aren't even better ways of producing power. Black hole jets seem to indicate there is.

May 17, 2017
Perhaps living in the habitable zone is the high priced sought after real estate. Enjoying the pleasures of a corporeal existence might be just what the poorer machine mind living in the cold vacuum of space dreams of, once it has gathered enough of whatever particle or energy might constitute the trading medium......

May 17, 2017
A sunny day at the beach is nice. But when you get back to your cold home country it's not so nice. Now if you have the option of easily altering yourself to have that 'nice' feeling no matter where you are (at the beach, in the mountains, walking onthe surface of a sun or out in the endless reaches of space - why go to live (and stay!) at 1AU? What's the point?

If you really can go anywhere without any risk or care or loss of contact to others (even if it's only at sub light speeds) who wouldn't go exploring? Would you really keep sitting at the same beach? Why?

May 17, 2017
As I mentioned, a Dyson harness in the habitable zone could be the best way to maintain a large farm/zoo a la Niven's Ringworld.

And while a star might not be the most efficient fusion reactor, it could be a lot more efficient overall to build a harness around one that already exists than to build an entire new one that's more operationally efficient. Especially if that's the limit of the energy/construction capacity of the alien intelligence. And more especially if its energy/construction capacity is great enough but its genetics/whatever engineering capacity is not, divergent from our own progression.

A sunny day

May 17, 2017
maintain a large farm/zoo

Again: for what point and purpose? Just for having it? You really think we'll still be dependent on farming in a million (or even a thousand) years?

it could be a lot more efficient overall to build a harness around one that already exists than to build an entire new one that's more operationally efficient

A star locks you into place. A small fusion generator - not so much. And there's still the open question: Why do you envision anyone would need that sort of power in one place? When the *current* trend on Earth already goes the other direction?

Extrapolating from current trends I see really advanced species more capable of running whatever they want off of ambient radiation like the CMBR - rather than needing to tap suns (and not having any strucures at all except their own bodies)

May 17, 2017
EmceeSquared - Trump is a Russian agent.

I suggest you put on your tin foil hat because he is a Martian out to steal your thoughts :-)

Trump fired the FBI director
Just out of curiosity have you ever heard the terms "Laid Off"

Again, I'm not afraid of anything.

Once again a bold super contradictory statement from a man that hides behind a mask called EmceeSquared.

you've revealed yourself to be a Russian agent yourself

Wrong again, I to am a Martian :-). Be afraid be very afraid :-)
Time for you to commit yourself.

May 17, 2017
Just after reading the words "Furthermore, he argued that these Dyson Rings would likely be built around pulsars rather than stars"...

I went back to see if the date on the article was April 1rst.

But, in fairness, these kinds of imaginative ideas are always god-like in their ambitions.

May 17, 2017
Wow, and we get criticized for pseudo science and just published a pseudoscience article. I'm quite confident that no Dyson sphere or ring will ever be discovered.

Basically, if intelligent life exists, why have we consistently failed to find any evidence of it?
Earthlings will always be in denial. It's like, if they ever came forward (again) no-one would believe it anyway because that would kill the paradigm. They want to keep the dream alive.

Heck, all those hairy squinty-eyed poindexters, who only ever wear business suits to everywhere, are descended from a huge crew that came to Earth a long time ago from the dog star, Sirius. Their "ship of millions of years", as it is described in ancient Egyptian "temple" murals, can be found here: It is also an ancient alien mega-structure, having been a space colony for a very, very long time before finding us. Believe it or not!

May 17, 2017
Basically, if intelligent life exists, why have we consistently failed to find any evidence of it?

The more we fail to find evidence, the more I think one of two things are happening.

1. They are hiding and masking every indication of their existance with technology that is so far ahead of ours we will never detect them.

2. Our future generations have hid any indications of our world from any other intelligent species. Which of course masks them from us.

May 17, 2017
What happens when just a modest size rock like is floating in great numbers in any star systems falls onto the surface of a neutron star? Isn't it something like a very major flare of intense radiation? I think I'd not be volunteering for a visit to that ring....

May 17, 2017
Again: for what point and purpose?

Well, life forms are interesting: highly complex, self organizing processors of info, entropy and energy - fun. And while "fun" is a human construct they might not have - by the same token, they might value farmed life forms in some way inscrutable to humans.

The current trend on Earth is efficiency, because we're against Earthbound limits (end of cheap oil, beginining of catastrophic Greenhouse, etc). Once we're fully spacefaring we will dwarf our previous energy consumption moving billions of people's civilization among the planets and eventually the stars. Cracking the Greenhouse, terraforming Mars. Forcing gravity into parallel universes. Unforseen projects.

Alien intelligences will have purposes we can't understand. But the point is not to guess their motives, which is impossible. Just to speculate what a large habitable zone area under an existing star would be good for.

May 17, 2017
intelligences will have purposes we can't understand. But the point is not to guess their motives, which is impossible.

We will be like that in a few years when we enhance our intelligence 10 fold.

May 17, 2017
I think body alterations
And in related news...

"Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero will undertake the first human head transplant later this year in China, the doctor told German magazine Ooom in an article published Thursday. And, following that effort, he will revive a cryogenically frozen brain and transplant it into a donor body within the next three years.

"A Russian man, suffering from a spinal muscular atrophy malady called Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease, even publicly volunteered for the procedure..."

- You laugh now but they won't be laughing in a few 100 years. And how soon before that little ball of goo inside our skulls disappears entirely?

It's so... inadequate. Passe. No matter what we can ever do to 'enhance it.

May 17, 2017
No, your confidence is unscientific. Proposing hypothetical explanations for some observed astronomical structures is scientific.


May 18, 2017
they might value farmed life forms in some way inscrutable to humans.

That's a bit of the problem (and it's being restated in one form or another in various posts): what way?

Sure aliens *might* build megastructures. And unicorns might fart rainbows. The point I'm making is that this Kardashev type classification is a house of cards that's missing the bottom layer. It's an idea born out of an early industrialization background - making energy harvesting and energy control some kind of ultam ratio. At that time (1960's) that was understandable.

Looking at how we are already progressing (long before reaching the higher K-stages) it looks a lot less like a sensible idea. Harvesting energy and energy control isn't done 'just because'. It's done because you need/want it to do something. And as of now no one has come up with a reasonable idea of what that 'something' might be.

I think advanced civs don't do 'mega'. They do tiny/distributed/multiply-redundant.

May 18, 2017
Just to speculate what a large habitable zone area under an existing star would be good for.

Which is the point I'm making. The term 'habitable' only applies to primitive cultures (like ours). Once you're seriously in space (and much more so when you can start to alter yourself) the idea of limiting yourself to what we think is 'habitable' becomes nonsensical.

Building megastructures just to see horses grazing also strikes me as somewhat bizarre.

Another issue is longevity. Once you're near immortal - save for large scale events like GRBs - stuff that we find totally acceptable becomes an unacceptable risk. This can be directly derived from game theory (Risk of Ruin). A truly long lived species that is still subject to death-by-accident wouldn't go anywhere near a galaxy - much less a single star.

May 18, 2017
A truly long lived species that is still subject to death-by-accident wouldn't go anywhere near a galaxy - much less a single star.

I would think that if a species reached the level of sophistication you are describing then the creation of another vehicle for the consciousness would be banal. In fact some form of distributed consciousness or distributed backup solution would be employed so that in the event the primary was destroyed in an accident the consciousness could be recreated from the last save point into a new vehicle.

May 18, 2017
That goes into some iffy existential territory. Is a copy (even down to the atomic level) really you? (In 'Star Trek'-terms: Is beaming OK? Or is it just killing you and reassembling something that thinks it's you)

I mean: if you die it's still *you* that dies. There might be something that lives one which thinks it's like you - but that doesn't mean it *is* you. From an a memetic/genetic standpoint (the one that says "I want my personality/memory/attitude to survive") a copy is a fine solution. From a personal standpoint it's not.

Of course you can go into even more advanced territory and think about distributed/partial personalities where, if one part dies, that doesn't affect the organism as a whole (it'd be a bit like a human having a stroke, losing part of his/her abilities/memory, and having to relearn that). There we could envision partial personalities acting as agents within potentially dangerous environments (like galaxies).

It's a fun game theory excercise.

May 18, 2017
I mean: if you die it's still *you* that dies. There might be something that lives one which thinks it's like you - but that doesn't mean it *is* you is unless you believe in a soul? If there is no physical difference at the atomic/quantum level then there is no difference imvho.

I was thinking that the personality becomes the distributed entity. The mechanisms for that personality to interact with the environment could be as single or multiple physical entities. Drones if you will. To keep things singular one drone could interact with the universe, its experiences relayed to its consciousness in a backed up, distributed cloud solution. The point at which the drone dies is of course unfortunate but it's merely a drone. There are never two yous, so no existential questions arise on who is the real you. But I don't think a consciousness in this form would limit itself to one means of sensing or one instance of each means for that matter. Good debate :)

May 18, 2017 is unless you believe in a soul?

I don't believe in souls or other ineffable stuff. But I do think that if something experiences death then it's dead. And if something that hasn't expierenced that death - no matter how good a copy it is - is not the same. They differ at least in that experience. They are two different individuals with different experiences.

If we're talking non-sentient remotes/drones then that is something different. In that case none of the original personality is involved. But just copying a person doesn't give you twice that person. It just gives you two individuals that shared a common past - and for each of whom their death (or any other experience) is singular.

May 18, 2017
@EmceeSquare: yah, I know, eh? And these guys actually introduced themselves at the U.N. back in the early to mid-sixties as representing "Saturn", would you believe it? I remember seeing that on the 6 o'clock TV news before there was cable. I was a kid.

I'm telling you, people will just not let the paradigm go. It's like the AS15-P-9625 image. That made the news in '74 and almost nobody remembers. 43% of Americans believe that the world is 6,000 years old (Gallup poll), and they are the counterproductive influence obstructing acceptance of the basic truths of reality, by their prejudice and ignorance.

I mean, take the Creation Story in Genesis. It clearly delivers a message. God is said to have created the firmament to separate the waters above the firmament (rain) from the waters below it, and separated the waters below the firmament into land, which he called Earth, and water, which he called the sea. He called the firmament "heaven".

He came from space.

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