A Russian Soyuz space capsule landed safely on the steppes of Kazakhstan Sunday (Nov. 10), returning cosmonauts and two astronauts to Earth along with a one other precious item: the Olympic torch.
The Soyuz spacecraft landed at 9:49 p.m. EST (0249 Nov. 11 GMT) in central Kazakhstan, where the local time was Monday morning. Frigid temperatures greeted the returning space travelers — cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano — after five and a half months in space.
"The initial reports indicate a bull's eye landing for the Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft and its crew," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during the agency's televised landing commentary. [See more landing day photos for Soyuz crew]
Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano launched to the International Space Station in late May and formed part of the outpost's six-person Expedition 37 crew, which Yurchikhin commanded. Before departing the station Sunday, Yurchikhin handed command of the station over to fellow cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, who now leads the station's Expedition 38 crew.
"Bye, station," Yurchikhin said as the Soyuz undocked earlier Sunday.
"Bye, bye," Nyberg added.
"See you, soon," Parmitano chimed in.
The Olympic torch returning to Earth on the Soyuz first arrived at the space station on Thursday (Nov. 7) along with replacement crewmembers for the returning Expedition 37 crew. In an first, the Olympic torch was taken on a spacewalk by two cosmonauts on Saturday (Nov. 9) during a cosmic relay and photo op.
Spacewalker Oleg Kotov is seen with the Olympic torch outside the International Space Station, Nov. 9, 2013.
Yurchikhin said he and his crew plan to present the torch to the Olympic Committee after landing.
The new arrivals — cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata — temporarily boosted the station's crew up to nine people. It was the first time since October 2009 that many people have been aboard without a visiting NASA space shuttle.
"These guys are like a group of brothers for me," Nyberg said in a Friday news conference when asked how she felt as the only woman on the crew. "These guys are all great, so it's been fantastic."
With the return of Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano, the space station's Expedition 38 mission is now in full swing, In addition to Kotov (the commander), Tyurin, Mastracchio and Wakata, the crew includes NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins and cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy.
During their busy mission, the Expedition 37 crew welcomed a visiting cargo ship from Japan, as well as the first-ever robotic Cygnus spacecraft, a commercial cargo ship built by the U.S. company Orbital Sciences.
Nyberg embraced social media to share her space voyage with the public. In addition to posting her amazing photos of Earth from space on Twitter, she was the first astronaut to use Pintrest to share her photos and crafts in space.
Parmitano became Italy's first spacewalker during his two spacewalks, one of which was cut short by a scary water leak in his spacesuit helmet that NASA engineers are still investigating.
Still, Parmitano said he would not hesitate to venture outside the station on another spacewalk, if the opportunity arose, and will miss living in orbit.
"What I am going to miss above everything is the idea of being here, living weightless in this extraordinarily environment," Parmitano said Friday.
This story was updated at 10 p.m. EST to include details about today's Soyuz landing in Kazakhstan.