KOROLYOV (Moscow Region), November 11 (RIA Novosti) – Russia’s Soyuz space capsule landed safely in Kazakhstan on Monday, returning three astronauts and the symbolic Olympic torch to Earth after its first ever spacewalk.
The Russian Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft landed at around 8:49 a.m. local time (02:49 GMT) on the Kazakh steppe, some three hours after undocking from the International Space Station with Russia’s Fyodor Yurchikhin, the US’s Karen Nyberg and Italy’s Luca Parmitano on board.
Shortly after landing, Yurchikhin handed the torch to representatives of the Russian Olympic committee. The “space torch” will be used to light the main Olympic flame during the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 7.
A spokesman for the mission control center said the crew were fine during the descent and landing and were “in a good mood” after spending about six months in space.
Two Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky, took the torch into open space on November 9 for an hour-long photo and video session as part of an almost six-hour scheduled maintenance spacewalk. The torch remained unlit throughout the flight for safety reasons.
Kotov and Ryazansky will continue the ISS mission together with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who carried the torch onto the rocket on November 7.
The Olympic torch has been sent into space before – for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and Sydney Games in 2000 – but has never before been taken outside the spacecraft.
The torch relay for the February 7-23 Sochi Games started on Moscow’s Red Square on October 7. The four-month event takes in all of Russia's 83 regions on its 56,000-kilometer (35,440 mile) trip, making it the longest in the history of the Olympics.