The Soyuz's side landing is considered normal for landings in windy conditions [Reuters]

Three astronauts who spent almost six months on the International Space Station have returned to earth in a Russian Soyuz capsule.

Tuesday's touch down shortly before sunrise on the steppe of central Kazakhstan was the first manned landing since NASA retired its space shuttles in July.

NASA said the capsule, carrying Mike Fossum of the United States, Satoshi Furukawa of Japan and Sergei Volkov of Russia, landed on its side in windy conditions after a three-and-a-half-hour return to earth.

The trio had spent 167 days aboard the $100-billion space station, which is shared by 16 nations.

Russian spaceships have become the sole means of ferrying goods and crews to and from the space station since the end of the space shuttle programme.

The astronauts' safe return comes after the successful launch last week of the Soyuz rocket which delivered a replacement crew to the ISS, putting Russia's space programme back on track following the August crash of an unmanned cargo flight led to the suspension of manned space missions.

But hopes were fading on Tuesday for the recovery of a Mars-bound probe launched earlier this month which has been stuck in orbit around the earth since then.

Officials aknowledged on that chances of repairing the unmanned $170 million Phobos-Grunt were virtually zero.

Despite efforts to establish contact with the probe, Russian engineers have been unable to retrieve data from the probe.

"We have to be realistic. Since we haven't been able to get in touch with it for such a long time, chances to accomplish the mission are very slim," Vitaly Davydov, a Russian space official, said in remarks carried by the Interfax news agency.

Davydov said the probe could crash to earth between late December and late February. The site of the crash, however, could not be determined more than a day in advance, he said.

Source: Agencies