It appears that for early cubesats the solar panels were simply fixed flat to the sides of the spacecraft, and even deployable panels were not part of early cubesat designs.

Have a significant number of cubesats been configured such that solar panels/sails can be oriented to track the Sun? Or any at all for that matter?

What about articulated solar sails?

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    $\begingroup$ This is a fair question, but it may be difficult to answer unless there is a database of every cubesat and its characteristics. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Jun 25, 2020 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @DrSheldon I edited the question for clarity. My hypothesis is that it would be foolhardy to assume all, or even most, active satellites can adjust part of their structure to point a different direction than the rest of the structure just so they can gather solar energy. Cubesats were an easy example of a contradiction to what I believe to be an invalid assumption. $\endgroup$
    – brethvoice
    Jun 25, 2020 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @brethvoice this is a really interesting question! I've adjusted the wording of the question but I think this is what you really mean to ask. Cubesat solar panels are indeed usually fixed flat to the exterior sides of the spacecraft, but some could "pop open" after they were released and remained at fixed angles. I've never heard of an articulated panel that could track the Sun independent of the attitude of the spacecraft, but some might control the attitude of the whole spacecraft to make sure the panels get enough sunlight to keep the batteries charged. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jun 25, 2020 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ What would be the metric for "a significant proportion?" The choice of adding a Solar Array Drive Assembly (SADA) is often related to mass. The CAPSTONE mission for example does not have one (space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/capstone.htm), although other Tyvak-build cubesats do have SADAs. $\endgroup$
    – ChrisR
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ This is just an educated guess but I'd be surprised if more than a handful of cubesats (or any at all) have sun-tracking articulated solar panels. Most cubesats are static and have no moving parts relying simply on surface-mounted panels to get sun. Often they have a sun-sensor and then use magnetotorquers to orient themselves. Fewer cubesats (typically >1 U) have unfolding solar panels such as Planet Doves but these are only deployed once and then are fixed. Even the MarCo cubesats had deploy-able but fixed panels. It's probably easier to simply reorient the whole craft to face the sun. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Jun 26, 2020 at 16:54

1 Answer 1


By far the most common cubesat today is the Planet Lab, with around 100 of them launched. These have deployable solar panels.

That being said, much of it depends on what the purpose is. Most of the smaller (1U) cubesats still have fixed arrays, as their main purpose is to do some simple, low power test and are operated by students. The more commercialized they become, however, the larger and more likely to have deployable solar arrays they become.

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    $\begingroup$ "deployable" is not the same thing as "articulated... can be pointed at the Sun." Once deployed I'd assume the solar panels of those cubesats would generally remain fixed in their deployed position. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Aug 29, 2020 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ Fair enough about the articulated, but if they can be deployed at least, one can rotate the spacecraft to have them pointed mostly at the Sun, so... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Aug 31, 2020 at 12:28

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