Three crew members from the International Space Station returned to Earth on Monday morning after six months orbiting the planet. The members of Expedition 29, squashed into a Soyuz spacecraft, landed in central Kazakhstan.
It was the first return to Earth of astronauts since Nasa retired its space shuttle in July. With that gone, the Russians are the only people able to transport people and goods to and from the ISS, which is a joint endeavour of 16 countries and cost $100bn (£64bn) to build.
The 167-day Expedition 29 was commanded by US astronaut Mike Fossum, who was accompanied by flight engineers Satoshi Furukawa of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Sergei Volkov of the Russian Federal Space Agency. Volkov has now completed two missions aboard the ISS, clocking up 366 days in space in total. During their time in orbit, the crew celebrated 11 years of continuous residence by astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS.
Volkov gave a thumbs-up as he was extracted from the cramped Soyuz capsule, which was blackened by the extreme heat as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, and was followed out by Fossum. Furukawa, who is also a surgeon, had his brow mopped by a ground technician as he emerged last into the frigid conditions in Kazakhstan, where temperatures were -15C. The astronauts and cosmonaut were huddled into thermal blankets as they emerged from the capsule, which landed on its side in the windy conditions, around 55 miles from the town of Arkalyk.
The crew had medical tests in an inflatable tent near the landing site before being flown by helicopter to the city of Kostanai, in the north of the country, where they were given bouquets of flowers and answered questions from local media.
As he and his crew left the ISS, Fossum handed over command of the space station to Nasa astronaut Dan Burbank, leader of Expedition 30, whose team includes flight engineers Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov of Russia. They will be joined by three more crew members: Nasa’s Don Pettit, European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers and cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko at the ISS just before Christmas Day.