Over the past century, carrying the Olympic torch from Athens to the venue of the next games has become an elaborate relay race spanning continents and oceans. Yesterday, the torch for next year's Winter Olympics in Russia took a detour into orbit as two Russian cosmonauts working outside the International Space Station (ISS) conducted the first ever handover in the vacuum of space.

The handover was carried out by Expedition 37 Flight Engineers Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy shortly after they emerged from the Pirs docking compartment at 9:34 AM EST at the start of a nearly six-hour spacewalk to conduct maintenance operations.. Wearing color-coded and number Orlan spacesuits, the cosmonauts did the handover about 260 mi (420 km) above the Earth, and the event was transmitted over television and the internet by NASA TV.

The torch arrived at the ISS on Thursday aboard the Soyuz spacecraft ferrying the Expedition 38 astronauts. For safety reasons, the torch is unlit and during the spacewalk was tethered to Kotov by a safety line to keep it from floating away if he let go.

This isn't the first time an Olympic torch has flown into space. The first was in 1996 aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis to commemorate that year’s games, but today marked the first time the torch was taken outside a spacecraft.

After returning to Earth on Sunday, the olympic relay will continue and ends with the lighting of the Olympic flame on February 7, 2014 during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

The video below shows the handover of the torch.

Source: NASA