ISS crew brings Olympic torch safely back from space

Russia's Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft carrying an international crew including Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and US astronaut Rick Mastracchio and an unlit Olympic torch for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi aboard blasts off on November 7, 2013.

Three astronauts returned to Earth Monday, after 66 days aboard the International Space Station, bringing back the Olympic torch back to the planet after a historic space walk.

Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, NASA US astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian colleague Luca Parmitano, descended in the Soyuz capsule to touch down at 0249 GMT on the frosty steppes of Kazakhstan.

Their return completed one of the most ambitious legs of the torch relay in the run-up to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi next February.

The torch, kept unlit throughout its space journey, was securely wrapped during the descent, and an employee of Russia's space agency Roscosmos took it out of the packaging.

"Here's the torch!" he said, holding it up to the cameras before handing it to Soyuz captain Yurchikhin who sat smiling wrapped up in a blue blanket resting near the Soyuz.

After a few minutes Parmitano and Nyberg were also extricated from the craft, which had landed on its side. The trio sat in the sunshine surrounded by medical staff as well as flags of Russia and the Sochi Olympic Games.

The capsule completed a "flawless descent" and touched down exactly on time, a NASA TV commentator said.

Six people remain aboard the ISS which, before Monday's return, had been crammed with nine astronauts and hosted a rare conference from space.

Russian crew members Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazansky on Saturday took the torch for a spacewalk posing spectacularly against the backdrop of the ISS and the Earth.

Russia has put together an unprecedented torch relay, sending the torch through all of its regions and as far as the North Pole on a nuclear-powered icebreaker.

Although a spacewalk with a torch was unprecedented, other torches have travelled to space on US space shuttle voyages ahead of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and the 2000 Games in Sydney.