Damaged Russian Soyuz capsule lands back on Earth from space station

A view shows external damage believed to have caused a loss of pressure in the cooling system of the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft

(Reuters) -A damaged Russian Soyuz MS-22 capsule landed back on Earth on Tuesday, three months after coolant began leaking from the craft while it was docked at the International Space Station (ISS).

The module completed the almost two-hour return from the ISS without a crew, landing in the Kazakh steppe on Tuesday afternoon, a few hundred kilometres from the Baikonur cosmodrome, home to Russia's space launches.

The landing was broadcast online by the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

A significant coolant leak was discovered in the capsule last December - caused by a 0.8-millimetre hole in its outer skin.

A tiny meteorite is likely to have pierced the structure while it was docked, experts say. Images captured from the exterior of the ISS showed coolant fluid spewing into space, while Roscosmos said temperatures at one point rose to 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) inside the capsule.

The leaks prompted Roscosmos and the U.S. space agency NASA to rearrange their schedules and postpone space walks.

Russia sent a back-up capsule - the MS-23 - to the ISS last month and decided to bring the damaged MS-22 back to Earth without a crew.

The Two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut who were due to return to Earth in March will now stay on the ISS until September.

Roscosmos said the capsule returned on Tuesday with 218 kg (481 lb) of cargo, including the results of scientific experiments and equipment from the station that would be analysed on Earth or reused in future missions.

Washington and Moscow have maintained cooperation in space despite relations hitting their lowest in decades, with astronauts stationed together at the ISS, and also ferried back and forth jointly.

Russia has said it will quit the ISS and launch its own independent space station at some time in the future, though plans for how and when remain under discussion.

The space station, a science laboratory spanning the size of a football field and orbiting some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, has been occupied continuously for more than two decades under a U.S.-Russian-led partnership that also includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.

(Reporting by Jake Cordell; Editing by Kevin Liffey)