WASHINGTON — NASA awarded a contract extension potentially worth nearly $540 million to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., to provide up to 10 more years of science and flight operations support for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, according to a Dec. 31 agency news release.

Launched in 1999 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia, Chandra is part of NASA’s fleet of “Great Observatories,” along with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the now deorbited Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Managed by NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Chandra and its instruments allow scientists from around the world to see unprecedented X-ray images of the electromagnetic spectrum. More than 100 times more powerful than any previous X-ray telescope, Chandra’s life expectancy was initially limited to five years, though in September 2001 NASA said it would extend the observatory’s mission through 2009 based on its outstanding performance to date.

Since then, studies have indicated Chandra could last even longer, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s recent contract extension suggests the spacecraft could continue operating through the end of the decade. The initial $172 million contract modification extends science and flight operations support through Sept. 30, 2013, bringing the total contract value to approximately $545 million, according to the news release. But if two additional options are exercised, that value will rise to $913 million through 2019. Those additional extensions, each lasting three years, are valued at $177 million and $191 million, NASA said.