AFP

MOSCOW -Three astronauts returned to Earth on Monday after a 166-day mission, bringing the Olympic torch back from the International Space Station after a historic space walk. The trip completed the most ambitious leg of Russia’s unparallelled torch relay in the run-up to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in February.

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

The torch, kept unlit throughout its space journey due to safety precautions on the space station and lack of oxygen in open space, 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, presenting it to the cameras before handing it to veteran space traveller and Soyuz captain Yurchikhin, who sat smiling wrapped up in a blue blanket near the Soyuz.

Yurchikhin took off his gloves and posed for pictures with the 1.8-kilogramme (four-pound) and nearly metre-long (three-foot-long) torch.

After a few minutes, Nyberg and Parmitano, who had completed his first space voyage, were also extricated from the craft, which had landed on its side — something that frequently happens due to the drag of the parachute.