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With the sad demise of the US Space Transportation System (Colloquially known as the "Space Shuttle") return of payload from orbit is very limited.

Currently the SpaceX Dragon can return the most payload, in the 2000 lbs range. Soyuz is the only other current option, which has about 90-100 lbs of cargo it can return with the crew.

Could a Soyuz return empty, no crew, but all payload?

Sort of a Soyuz used as a Progress, but mostly for the return payload.

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According to Anatoly Zak, 550 kg returned, and 620 kg disposed of, if Progress M would include a Soyuz TMA reentry capsule, a concept configuration proposed by RKK Energia in 2006. Which, if I'm reading your question correctly, is exactly what you're describing. I.e., keep all that's needed for deorbit burn and landing, simplify life support system for pressurized cargo with possible live passengers (small animals, plants, etc), and throw out all the rest.

You're left with space for 550 kg of pressurized cargo in TMA that lands with a bump-cushioning last second retrofire somewhere in Kazakh steppes, and 620 kg of refuse that burns on Progress reentry.

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