The unmanned Cassini-Huygens spacecraft entered orbit around Saturn in 2004 on a mission that was supposed to come to an end in July this year.
The two-year mission extension will encompass some 60 extra orbits of Saturn and more flybys of its moons.
These will include 26 flybys of Titan – its biggest moon – seven of Enceladus, and one each of Dione, Rhea and Helene.
Bob Mitchell, programme manager for Cassini-Huygens at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in California, commented: “The spacecraft is performing exceptionally well and the team is highly motivated, so we’re excited at the prospect of another two years.”
Dr Rosaly Lopes, also from JPL, told BBC News: “We’re very pleased. We were expecting Nasa to extend Cassini for another two years, we had been told to plan for it, so we had already done a lot of the planning and decided what the tour was going to look like.
“But it’s nice to actually have the news out, because you never know up until the point when they sign on the dotted line.”
The mission has made stunning discoveries about the Saturn system since it arrived at the ringed planet four years ago.
Its studies of the largest moon, Titan, have provided a glimpse of what Earth might have been like before life evolved. Conditions on the moon are believed to resemble those on our own planet 4.6 billion years ago. …
The Enceladus moon, regarded as “just another ball of ice” until Cassini arrived, has now become a high priority for further exploration.
The spacecraft found evidence for geysers of water-ice jetting from the surface.
These geysers, which shoot out at a distance three times the diameter of the moon itself, feed particles into Saturn’s outermost ring. – bbc