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ISS astronauts return to Earth after extra month in space

Three astronauts from the ISS have landed back on Earth. They spent an extra month in space after their return was delayed following the failure of a rocket delivering supplies.

A Russian Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft left the International Space Station on Thursday, landing hours later in Kazakhstan and safely returning three astronauts to terra firma after 199 full days in space.

"It was a textbook homecoming," said a NASA Television presenter after the descent capsule touched the ground some 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast of Zhezkazgan at 7.44 p.m. local time (1344 UTC).

The capsule, charred by extreme heat from its re-entry, landed upright amid feathergrass, and was quickly located by recovery teams.

The three were carried and seated on semi-reclined chairs for a breath of fresh air under the setting sun. Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov was followed by Italy's Samantha Cristoforetti, of the European Space Agency, and "Expedition 43" Commander Terry Virts of NASA.

"Everything worked by the second, step by step, the guys were great," Shkaplerov said.

A literary reference

Ahead of her departure, Cristoforetti had tweeted a picture of herself from the station's cupola. Her goodbye referenced the works Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy writer Douglas Adams.

The trio's return - originally planned to take place on May 12 - was delayed by a month after a rocket failed to deliver the Progress cargo craft on April 28, instead landing in the sea.

The three remained on board to minimize the time the ISS would be half-staffed after Russia delayed the next manned mission to ISS while checks on rockets were carried out.

Another manned mission is now due to blast off in late July, carrying astronauts from Russia, Japan and the US.

Still aboard the $100 billion, 15-nation research station are Russia's Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko, as well as Scott Kelly of NASA.

rc/msh (AFP, Reuters)