It has been suggested that Saturn’s moon Enceladus possesses a subsurface ocean. The recent discovery of silica nanoparticles derived from Enceladus shows the presence of ongoing hydrothermal reactions in the interior. Here, we report results from detailed laboratory experiments to constrain the reaction conditions. To sustain the formation of silica nanoparticles, the composition of Enceladus’ core needs to be similar to that of carbonaceous chondrites. We show that the presence of hydrothermal reactions would be consistent with NH3- and CO2-rich plume compositions. We suggest that high reaction temperatures (>50°C) are required to form silica nanoparticles whether Enceladus’ ocean is chemically open or closed to the icy crust. Such high temperatures imply either that Enceladus formed shortly after the formation of the solar system or that the current activity was triggered by a recent heating event. Under the required conditions, hydrogen production would proceed efficiently, which could provide chemical energy for chemoautotrophic life.