Soyuz craft undocks for return to Earth

( AP ) - A Soyuz craft left its docking port at the international space station on Sunday, starting a return trip to Earth with two Russian cosmonauts and Malaysia's first space traveler aboard.

The capsule was to bring back Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov after a six-month stint at the station, along with Malaysian Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, who arrived at the orbital outpost Oct. 12.

The Soyuz briefly fired thrusters to distance itself from the station after leaving its berth on schedule at 3:14 EDT, said Valery Lyndin, spokesman for Russian Mission Control outside Moscow.

It was scheduled to touch down about 50 miles north of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, about three hours later, Lyndin said.

Weather on the Kazakh steppe was chilly and mostly clear, with some clouds expected to roll in before landing time. NASA television showed footage from the space station of the Soyuz, creeping along past the sunlit curve of the Earth.

Back aboard the station, the remaining crew - U.S. astronauts Peggy Whitson and Clayton Anderson, and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko - monitored the progress of the Soyuz on its return.

Whitson, the station's first female commander, arrived along with Sheikh Muszaphar and Malenchenko on another Soyuz that lifted off from the Russian-leased launch facility in Kazakhstan Oct. 10.

She and Malenchenko are to spend six months in orbit, while Anderson - aboard since June - is to be replaced in the coming weeks by U.S. astronaut Daniel Tani, who is to arrive on the U.S. shuttle Discovery later this month. The shuttle, due to lift off Tuesday, will also deliver a new pressurized compartment to the international space station.

Sheikh Muszaphar, a 35-year-old physician fulfilling his own dream of space travel and his country's, is the ninth Muslim in space. In about 10 days on the station, he performed experiments involving diseases and the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and genes.

The $25 million agreement for a Malaysian astronaut to fly to space was negotiated in 2003 along with a $900 million deal for Malaysia to buy 18 Russian fighter jets.

The station's new crew is to perform space walks linked in part with efforts to expand the station, which is due to add a European Space Agency module and a Japanese module in the coming months.

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