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Launch marks decade of missions

Astronauts from the US, Russia and Italy have blasted off into the darkness, casting a warm orange glow over the chilly plains of Kazakhstan with their Soyuz spacecraft as they began a mission to the International Space Station.

Russia's Dmitry Kondratyev, Nasa astronaut Catherine Coleman and the European Space Agency's Paolo Nespoli of Italy rode into space on the Soyuz TMA-20, which plans to dock at the orbiting laboratory on Friday.

Family and colleagues of the crew waited nervously before the launch, which kicked off with a piercing white flash succeeded by a roaring wall of sound.

Within seconds, the rocket seemed little more than a blur of incandescent flames fading into the distance.

Officials at the viewing platform gave status updates at 20-second intervals over loudspeakers until reaching the nine-minute mark, indicating the ship had reached the relative safety of orbit, prompting a lively round of cheers.

At that moment, a plush toy tiger that Coleman brought as the crew's mascot began floating in front of her, signalling the beginning of weightlessness as the spaceship reached an altitude of more than 125 miles above Earth, according to Nasa television footage.

The flight caps a decade of manned missions to the space station, which began in October 2000.

The departure of the Soyuz had been pushed back several days due the last-minute replacement of its re-entry module, which had been damaged during unloading earlier this year at the Baikonur cosmodrome in the Central Asian steppes.

Replacing a key module so late in the launch schedule had caused some apprehension, although Mr Kondratyev shrugged such worries off at a final press conference.

"All the procedures needed to check the integrity of the ship have been completed, and all those have shown positive results," he said.

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