Astronauts take Sochi Olympic torch to ISS

An international trio of astronauts arrived Thursday at the International Space Station with an unlit Olympic torch that will for the first time be taken on a spacewalk to mark the Sochi Winter Games.

The crew blasted off Thursday morning from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in a Soyuz-TMA capsule powered by a Soyuz-FG rocket, both emblazoned with symbols of the Sochi games as well as the Olympic rings.

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, Russia's Mikhail Tyurin and Japan's Koichi Wakata shared the capsule with the same torch that Russia will use to light the cauldron at its first post-Soviet Olympic Games in Sochi next year.

The capsule then docked with the ISS around six hours later, after four orbits of the Earth.

The newly arrived astronauts joined six incumbent crew: station commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Russia and flight engineers Karen Nyberg and Mike Hopkins of NASA, Italy's Luca Parmitano and Russians Sergei Ryazansky and Oleg Kotov.

It is the first time since 2009 that there have been nine astronauts on board instead of the usual six.

Cosmonaut Tyurin was the first to float through the open hatch into the ISS, brandishing the torch and grinning broadly. He shook hands with cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and gave him the torch.

Minutes later, the nine astronauts crowded together to make a videoconference call to family members. Tyurin let the angular silver torch twirl in weightlessness while they spoke.

In an unprecedented move, two cosmonauts who are already on board the ISS, Kotov and Ryazansky, are set to take the torch on a space walk from 1430 GMT on Saturday aimed at promoting the Sochi Games.

Russian officials have made it clear that the torch will remain unlit at all times for safety reasons.

The cosmonauts will hold a photo session in open space with the torch, which will be tethered with a special strap, and then carry out essential work. The torch will spend around five hours outside the ISS.

"We all understand and have a responsible attitude because the torch is a symbol and therefore it needs to be treated with respect and maybe even reverence," Tyurin said ahead of the launch in televised comments.

The Olympic torch was carried into space ahead of the 1996 and 2000 Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney but has never before been taken on a spacewalk.

However, Russia's efforts to promote the Sochi Games as a symbol of its post-Soviet transformation have been tarnished by rows over a law seen as anti-gay as well as allegations of corruption in the vast construction needed for the event.

Spectacular torch relay

After a brief stay on the ISS, the torch will then be taken back to Earth by the three astronauts now finishing their five-and-a-half-month mission on the ISS. They are due to touch down in Kazakhstan on Monday at 0250 GMT.

The same torch will later be used to light the Olympic flame at the Fisht stadium in Sochi for the Games' opening ceremony on February 7.

In a spectacular torch relay, Russia last month took a lit Olympic torch to the North Pole on a nuclear-powered icebreaker.

The high-profile Olympics mission comes as Russia seeks to prove that its mostly Soviet-designed systems are reliable enough to continue the conquest of space.

The 2011 retirement of the US Space Shuttle programme made the Soyuz -- whose basic principles are little changed since the first manned spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961 -- the world's last remaining manned link with the ISS.

But Russia has been recently blighted by a string of space failures that include the July 2 explosion shortly after take-off from Baikonur of an unmanned Proton-M rocket.

In an apparent response to the problems, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on October 10 fired the head of the state space agency Roscomos, Vladimir Popovkin, after just two-and-a-half years in the job.

Oleg Ostapenko, previously deputy defence minister, was appointed the new Roscosmos chief.