A Russian space capsule carrying the Sochi Olympic torch and three astronauts has returned to Earth from the International Space Station today in a flawless landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz capsule landed at 8.49pm local time (2.49am GMT), about three and a half hours after undocking from the station with Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin, American Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano of Italy aboard.

The unlit Olympic torch was brought to the ISS on Thursday when three new crew members arrived. Two Russian crew members took it on a spacewalk on Saturday.

The capsule descended through brilliantly clear skies under a parachute.

Yurchikhin, the mission commander, was extracted from the capsule within about 10 minutes of touchdown and carried to a reclining chair, where he was put under a blanket against the minus-4C (25F) chill and began adjusting to the pull of gravity after 166 days of weightlessness.

The torch, in a protective bag, was brought out and given to Yurchikhin to hold after it was unwrapped. He waved it a little and smiled.

Nyberg was quickly given dark glasses to protect her eyes against the intense sunlight. Parmitano, the last out, appeared thrilled, grinning broadly and pumping his fists.

All three were to be taken for tests at a medical tent at the landing site, then flown to the city of Karaganda for a welcome ceremony.

Six people remain aboard the space station: Russians Oleg Kotov, Sergei Ryazansky and Mikhail Tyurin; Nasa’s Michael Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio; and Koichi Wakata of Japan.

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