Three astronauts have returned to Earth after five months in space and 2,688 orbits of the planet.
NASA’s Scott Tingle, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, and Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), left the International Space Station (ISS) and headed to Earth just after 11am UK time.
Their Soyuz spacecraft undocked and travelled away from the ISS for a couple of hours, before igniting its engines which took it out of Earth’s orbit.
After it split into its three constituent parts, the descent module fell through the atmosphere at up to 500mph before its parachute was opened and it finally touched down in the Kazakhstan steppe at about 1.40pm UK time.
The three occupants had been in space for 168 days.
Three crewmembers remain in the ISS – Americans Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Russian Oleg Artemyev.
Another three astronauts are to be launched to the ISS on Wednesday.
Soon after the Soyuz spacecraft touched down, helicopters were seen over the landing site before Russian cameras filmed the three astronauts emerging from the capsule.
Scientists in the mission control centre could be seen clapping as the spacecraft came down with a puff of dust amid the Kazakh grasslands.
While the crew was in orbit they carried out research on why cells change while in space – something essential if humans are to go further than the moon – and the effects of zero gravity on plants and the human body.
They were able to taste some space-grown lettuce which was being cultivated to test whether plants could be grown during spaceflight.
JAXA president Hiroshi Yamakawa said: “I am very pleased that Astronaut Kanai, who completed a long stay at the International Space Station (ISS), returned safely to the Republic of Kazakhstan by the Soyuz spacecraft (53S/MS-07) today.
“Astronaut Kanai has steadily carried out numerous missions under the mission theme ‘clues to health and longevity are in space’ by exploiting his background as a doctor.
“Through the ISS long-term stay of Astronaut Kanai, he has informed the world that the ISS project is a successful example of international cooperation and collaboration and that Japan is indispensable among them.”