Experts are examining the backshell for the Mars Science Laboratory, which was improperly lifted at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) last week, NASA says.

The mission is designed to deliver a car-sized rover to the surface of Mars. An agency spokesman said the damage to the backshell did not appear to be serious.

Nonetheless, until the exact nature of the damage is determined, the incident raises concerns within the Science Mission Directorate that the launch might not be able to occur in the 2011 planetary window. Launch was set to take place on a United Space Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on Nov. 25. The launch window extends to Dec. 18. Launch opportunities to Mars occur approximately every 26 months.

An Air Force C-17 carrying the backshell, cruise stage and heat shield arrived at KSC May 12, with the rover itself and the descent stage to arrive in June. The accident apparently involved the backshell being lifted with a crane in the wrong attitude, placing out-of-specification strain on clamps holding it together.