Olympic torch heads into space
A rocket carrying the Olympic torch has successfully blasted off from Earth ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.
Nasa Live TV showed the rocket, emblazoned with the pale blue Sochi 2014 logo, launching from the Russian-operated Baikonur cosmodrome on a clear morning in Kazakhstan.
The torch will make its way to the International Space Station before being taken into space itself, making it the Olympic symbol's first spacewalk.
Russia's Mikhail Tyurin, Nasa's Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata of Japan beamed at the crowd as they carried the lit torch aboard the Soyuz rocket.
For safety reasons, the torch will not burn when it is onboard the space outpost. Lighting it would consume precious oxygen and pose a threat to the crew. The crew will carry the unlit torch around the station's numerous modules before taking it out on a spacewalk.
The Olympic torch has flown into space once before - in 1996 aboard the US space shuttle Atlantis for the Atlanta Summer Olympics - but it will be taken outside the spacecraft for the first time in history.
"It's a great pleasure and responsibility getting to work with this symbol of peace," Mr Tyurin told journalists ahead of the launch.
The torch will remain in space for five days. Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazanskiy, who are manning the International Space Station, will take the torch for a spacewalk on Saturday before it is returned to earth by three astronauts on Monday.
The four-month Sochi torch relay, which started in Moscow on October 7, is the longest in the history of the Olympics. For most of the 39,000-mile route, the flame will travel by plane, train, car and even reindeer sleigh, but 14,000 torch bearers are taking part in the relay that stops at more than 130 cities and towns.
Last month, the Olympic flame travelled to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. Later this month it will sink to the bottom of the world's deepest lake, Lake Baikal, and in February it will reach the peak of Mount Elbrus, at 18,510ft the highest mountain in Russia and Europe.
The torch will be used to light the Olympic flame at Sochi's stadium on February 7, marking the start of the 2014 Winter Games that run until February 23.