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Successful space station shift change by Russian rocket

NASA commanders ride up and down courtesy of Moscow

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The three returning crew members of the International Space Station touched down safely last night, marking another success for Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

Expedition 29 commander Mike Fossum of NASA and flight engineers Satoshi Furukawa, from Japan, and Sergei Volkov, from Russia, landed on the central steppe of Kazakhstan at 2.26am GMT, after nearly six months in space.

Fossum handed over command to NASA's Dan Burbank, the head of Expedition 30, who arrived at the ISS along with Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos last week, also aboard a Soyuz craft. The final three members of the current mission are scheduled to launch on December 21 to dock with the space station in time for Christmas on December 23.

Following the end of the US Space Shuttle programme, NASA signed a contract with Roscosmos to carry at least 12 American astronauts to and from the ISS on Soyuz ships until 2016.

The crash of an unmanned cargo ship in August caused some concern because the Progress space truck was carried by a Soyuz booster.

After an investigation and the successful launch of the next cargo ship, however, the manned Soyuz trip to the ISS for the crew change went off without a hitch, as did the docking a few days later.

The successes must be giving a much-needed boost to the Russian space agency as it struggles to regain control of its Martian probe Phobos-Grunt, which is stuck in Earth's orbit after its engines failed to send it to the Red Planet. ®

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