WASHINGTON Two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut returned to Earth on Thursday wrapping up a six-month mission at the International Space Station as tensions between Washington and Moscow threaten a rare area of cooperation.
NASA astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Oleg Artemyev of Roscosmos touched down on steppe land southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan at the expected time of 1145 GMT.
The landing came with Russian and US officials investigating the appearance of a mysterious hole in a Russian space craft docked at the orbiting station.
Detected in August, the hole caused an air leak on the ISS but was quickly sealed up.
This week the outspoken chief of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, said investigators believed the small hole had been made deliberately and was not a manufacturing defect.
The official, who was placed under US sanctions over the Ukraine crisis in 2014, also bemoaned problems in the Russian space agencys cooperation with NASA that he attributed to interference from unnamed American officials.
Last month the Russian daily Kommersant reported that an investigation had probed the possibility that US astronauts deliberately drilled the hole in order to get a sick colleague sent back home — something Russian officials later denied.
ISS commander Feustel has called the suggestion that the crew was somehow involved embarrassing and NASA on Wednesday expressed doubts over the theory that the hole was the result of sabotage.
The US space agency said that ruling out defects does not necessarily mean the hole was created intentionally or with mal-intent.
ISS astronauts are planning a spacewalk in November to gather more information on the hole.
The ISS is one of the few areas of tight Russia-US cooperation that had until now remained unaffected by the slump in ties, including after Washingtons sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and other crises.
Earlier the ISS hosted the usual emotional goodbyes as the returning trio left Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, NASAs Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Roscosmos Sergey Prokopyev waiting for the next three-person crews arrival.
The next launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is scheduled for next Thursda
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