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Space station crew return to Earth in Russian capsule

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Benoit Finck

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Touchdown ... the Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft shortly after it landed.

Touchdown ... the Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft shortly after it landed.

Three astronauts have touched down on the snowy steppes of Kazakhstan in a flawless pre-dawn landing aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule after spending over four months aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Russia's Yuri Malenchenko, Sunita Williams of the US and Akihiko Hoshide of Japan touched down as scheduled just before 2am GMT on Monday (1pm Monday AEDT), the Russian Space Flight Control Centre announced as the message "Landing Accomplished" was flashed on a giant screen.

The successful landing came after fears it could be postponed after workers in the Moscow region on Wednesday accidentally cut through a cable providing communications between Russia's mission control and the ISS.

Safe and well ... from left: Akihiko Hoshide, Yuri Malenchenko and Sunita Williams.

Safe and well ... from left: Akihiko Hoshide, Yuri Malenchenko and Sunita Williams.

The three landed an hour before sunrise a few kilometres from the target north-east of Arkalyk in central Kazakhstan, an official said on NASA TV which showed the landing.

After stepping out of the capsule one by one, the three were placed side by side on a special seat and covered with a blue blanket to protect them from the cold and falling snow, with the outside temperature about minus 10 degrees Celsius.

They appeared in good shape, with the American and the Japanese astronauts smiling for the cameras and the officials who greeted them.

The Russian cosmonaut Malenchenko, 50, said the return to Earth had gone "admirably" well. He had just completed his fifth space mission, while the other two had been on their second mission. The team were then taken to a tent set up nearby to undergo medical tests.

A sign that read "Landing place of space vessel Soyuz TMA-05" was hammered into the ground by local officials.

Three planes, 12 helicopters and six emergency vehicles were mobilised for the landing mission, RIA Novosti news agency reported.

"All the operations in leaving orbit and landing went smoothly. The crew members who returned to Earth are feeling well," the Russian mission control said in a statement.

The three ISS crew members had been on the space station since July. They will be replaced by a new team that blasts off December 19 in a Soyuz vessel from Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan. It will be made up of Russian Roman Romanenko, American Thomas Marshburn and Canadian Chris Hadfield.

They will join the remaining ISS crew, Russians Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin, and Kevin Ford of the United States, who arrived on October 25.

Since 2009 there have been permanent teams of six astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the space station, whose capacity was previously limited to only three persons.

The Russian Soyuz rocket has been used to ferry crews to and from the ISS since the US space shuttle was retired last year.

Russia has recently suffered a string of failed satellite launches and the loss of an unmanned supply ship to the ISS, but the manned missions have been flawless, although there had been concern about the latest landing because of the severed communications cable.

"It's true that there was no reserve cable and the breach happened in a section going between mission control and a connecting station," Russian space agency chief Vladimir Popovkin said, according to the ITAR-TASS news agency.

Russia managed to repair the problem within a day and Popovkin said the cable rupture had had no effect on the ISS since the US mission control is able to fully take over from the Russian one.

Mission control and the space agency's research centre are now drawing up a plan for a reserve cable in the affected section "so such things do not happen again," Popovkin said.

AFP