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Russia launches rocket carrying three astronauts and Olympic torch

Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Nov 7 (): A rocket carrying an unlit Olympic torch and Russian, Japanese and US astronauts has blasted off from its Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the mission control said.

The Soyuz-FG rocket and Soyuz-TMA capsule, inscribed with the symbols of the Sochi Games and the Olympic rings, blasted off successfully for the International Space Station (ISS) on time at 8:14 am Moscow time (0414 GMT), it said.

Ahead of February’s winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the rocket was decorated mainly with blue Olympic logo and the words Sochi 2014.

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio climbed with the Olympic torch on the steps of the capsule, along with his fellow passengers, Japan’s Koichi Wakata and Russia’s Mikhail Tyurin. The torch will remain unlit at all times for safety reasons.

They will join Soyuz TMA-10M commander Oleg Kotov, Michael Hopkins and Sergey Ryazanskiy, launched September 25, to make up the six-member Expedition 38 crew. The Soyuz TMA-11M crew will boost the lab’s crew to nine instead of the usual six.

The Olympic torch will be handed over to the Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky. They are set to take the torch on a space walk from 1430 GMT on Saturday aimed at promoting the Sochi Games.

Three other crew members,Soyuz TMA-09M commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, flight engineer Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg will bring the Olympic torch back to Earth Sunday.

The torch will return to earth on Monday and will travel across Russia before being used to light the Olympic flame at Sochi’s stadium on Feb. 7, 2014.

The Olympic torch has been carried into space twice before – in 1996 and 2000 – but it was never taken for a spacewalk.

The event is part of a rebranding exercise by Russia, designed to show it as a strong and modern country. Last month, Russia took a lit Olympic torch to the North Pole on a nuclear-powered icebreaker.