Three astronauts have returned to earth with carrying the Sochi Olympic torch. The iconic symbol of international sports landed in the steppes of Kazakhstan after its historic trip to the International Space Station.
A Soyuz capsule carrying Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin (pictured), US astronaut Karen Nyberg and their Italian colleague Luca Parmitano touched down at 0249 UTC on Monday about three hours after undocking from the ISS.
The torch, which was kept unlit during its time in space for safety reasons, was brought to the ISS on Thursday when three new crew members arrived. It was securely wrapped in a protective bag during its descent to earth.
Olympic symbol returns
"Here's the torch!" said an employee of Russia's space agency Roscosmos after taking it out of the packaging. He then handed the torch to Soyuz captain Yurchkin, who briefly held up the 1.8 kilogram (four pound), nearly meter (yard) long torch and posed for pictures.
Yurchkin, Nyberg and Parmitano were greeted by medical staff after returning from their 166-day mission. They were then taken to a heated tent to change out of their suits and undergo medical tests before being flown to the city of Karaganda for a welcome ceremony.
"The crew is feeling well," Roscosmos said in a statement.
Six people remain on the ISS - a team of three Russians, two Americans and a Japanese astronaut. Before the three astronauts returned on Monday, the station had been packed with nine people to host a rare conference from space.
Cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazansky took the torch out on Saturday for an unprecedented spacewalk broadcast live around the world, posing for pictures against the backdrop of the ISS and earth.
The torch will eventually light the Olympic cauldron in Sochi to open the Winter Games on February 7. Carried by government officials, celebrities and past Olympic champions, it has been taken on an impressive relay that has already seen it visit a number of Russia's regions as well as the North Pole. The torch will also be taken to Lake Baikal, the world's deepest freshwater lake, and Elbrus, Europe's tallest mountain.
Previous Olympic torches have traveled to space on US space shuttles for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and 2000 Sydney games, but the Sochi torch was the first to be taken on a spacewalk.
dr/jr (AFP, AP, dpa)