Astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield has touched down safely in Kazakhstan with two crewmates after an eventful five-and-a-half month mission on board the International Space Station, which saw him become an online sensation capturing the imaginations of many on Earth.
Hadfield signed off as commander of the International Space Station with a stratospheric rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity.
A Soyuz capsule under an orange parachute raised clouds of dust as it ignited an engine to cushion its landing some 150 kilometres southeast of the town of Zhezkazgan, in central Kazakhstan, at 2.31pm NZT today, NASA TV reported.
It also carried fellow NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko.
"The crew are feeling well," Mission Control outside Moscow said in a radio transmission, as several search and rescue helicopters hovered around the capsule on a bright morning.
The three astronauts were shown smiling, seated in semi-reclined chairs and covered with blue thermal blankets, waiting for medical tests after their landing. After so long in zero-gravity the astronauts may not be able to walk.
About three-and-a-half-hours earlier, space station commander Chris Hadfield, NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko departed the $100 billion orbital outpost as it sailed 410km over eastern Mongolia.
"It's just been an extremely fulfilling and amazing experience," Hadfield radioed to flight controllers.
He has since tweeted his safe return:
Safely home - back on Earth, happily readapting to the heavy pull of gravity. Wonderful to smell and feel Spring.— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) May 14, 2013
The mission included an impromptu spacewalk on Saturday to fix an ammonia coolant leak that had cropped up two days earlier. Without the repair, NASA likely would have had to cut back the station's science experiments to save power. The cooling system dissipates heat from electronics on the station's solar-powered wing panels.
During a five-and-a-half-hour spacewalk, Marshburn and Chris Cassidy, who remains aboard the station, replaced a suspect ammonia coolant pump, apparently resolving the leak. Engineers will monitor the system for several weeks to make sure there are no additional problems.
Hadfield captured the public imagination with regular updates on Twitter that gave an unprecedented insight into daily life in space and access to spectacular images taken from the ISS.
He made history on Monday when he released the first music video shot in space, turning the astronaut into an overnight music sensation with his zero-gravity version of David Bowie's hit Space Oddity.
The original video has already received over 1.5 million views on YouTube, and has made news around the world.
Bowie has tweeted a response to the video, posting: "CHRIS HADFIELD SINGS SPACE ODDITY IN SPACE! "Hallo Spaceboy..."
CHRIS HADFIELD SINGS SPACE ODDITY IN SPACE!Hallo Spaceboy...Commander Chris Hadfield, currently on... fb.me/24sZNW5lyDavid Bowie Official (@DavidBowieReal) May 12, 2013
Hadfield has arguably become the world's most prominent astronaut since the days of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Tweeting under the moniker @Cmdr_Hadfield, the astronaut posted spectacular pictures of the Earth seen from space, including some of New Zealand, and also insights on the mundane aspects of eating and washing in space.
"Hadfield captured the world's attention," the Canadian space agency said in a statement after the landing.
It said his outreach work has "reminded the world that space exploration is not only about looking beyond but also about learning about Earth".
Hadfield has already changed his Twitter profile to reflect his return to Earth. His biography now reads: "Canadian astronaut, back on Earth after living in space aboard ISS as Commander of Expedition 35. In a field in Kazakhstan."
Raised on a corn farm in southern Ontario, Hadfield become a top fighter pilot for the Canadian air force before being selected from over 5000 people in 1992 to be one of four new Canadian astronauts.
The mission of Hadfield, Marshburn and Romanenko, who blasted off 146 days ago, was the 35th expedition aboard the space station, a permanently staffed laboratory for biomedical, materials science, technology demonstrations and other research.
Their replacements are due to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on May 28. Until then, a skeleton crew commanded by Pavel Vinogradov and including NASA astronaut Cassidy and cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin will keep the station operating.
The crew's return to Earth comes on the 40th anniversary of the launch of the first US space station, Skylab. Three crews lived and worked on the relatively short-lived Skylab between May 1973 and February 1974. The project helped NASA prepare for in-flight research aboard the space shuttles and the International Space Station, which was constructed in orbit beginning in 1998.
The outpost, which is scheduled to remain in orbit until at least 2020, has been permanently staffed since November 2000.