Abstract The multibody dynamics of a satellite in circular orbit, modeled as a central body with two hinge-connected deployable solar panel arrays, is investigated. Typically, the solar panel arrays are deployed in orbit using preloaded torsional springs at the hinges in a near symmetrical accordion manner, to minimize the shock loads at the hinges. There are five degrees of freedom of the interconnected rigid bodies, composed of coupled attitude motions (pitch, yaw and roll) of the central body plus relative rotations of the solar panel arrays. The dynamical equations of motion of the satellite system are derived using Kane's equations. These are then used to investigate the dynamic behavior of the system during solar panel deployment via the 7–8th-order Runge–Kutta integration algorithms and results are compared with approximate analytical solutions. Chaotic attitude motions of the completely deployed satellite in circular orbit under the influence of the gravity-gradient torques are subsequently investigated analytically using Melnikov's method and confirmed via numerical integration. The Hamiltonian equations in terms of Deprit's variables are used to facilitate the analysis.