NASA's Cassini space probe has found hydrocarbons — compounds that make life possible on Earth — on the surface of one of Saturn's largest known moons, according to space agency scientists.

The conclusion, based on images taken of Hyperion, is outlined in a study published in the current issue of the journal Nature.

Dale Cruikshank, a planetary scientist and the paper's lead author, said the finding doesn't mean researchers have found life, but it's "a further indication that the basic chemistry needed for life is widespread in the universe."

Hydrocarbons are the basic chemicals necessary for life, combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Theyhave been found in comets, meteorites and space dust.

Scientists mapped the surfacematerials ofHyperion, Saturn's eighth-largest moon, using an ultraviolet imaging spectrograph and visual and infrared mapping spectrometer.

They found what they labelled hydrocarbons in the craters of the potato-shapedmoon, which has a spongy texture and is one of about 60 moons known to orbit the ringed planet.

Cassini flew near Hyperion in 2005. The close encounter allowed for an accurate measurement of the moon's mass and size, which showed it's only slightly more than half as dense as water.

It measures 265 kilometres by 400 kilometres. Scientists believe 40 per cent or more of its interior is empty.