I’ve updated yesterday’s piece at Ricochet to clarify, for those in comments. I’ve probably discussed this here before, but…

Per discussion in comments, there seems to be some confusion about the difference between high-altitude flight, suborbital flight, and orbital flight. As John Walker points out, orbital flight requires a minimum speed to sustain the orbit, but while that is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition. In fact, a flight can be suborbital with the same speed (energy) as an orbital flight. The best, or at least, most rigorous way to define a “suborbit” is an orbit that intersects the atmosphere and/or surface of the planet. So if you launched straight up at orbital velocity, it would still be a suborbit, because it would (after an hour or two, I haven’t done the math) fall back to the ground. So John’s numbers in terms of comparative energy are roughly correct for the particular vehicles being discussed here (XCOR Lynx and VG SpaceShipTwo), they can’t be generalized for any suborbital vehicle (e.g., a sounding rocket isn’t orbital, but it goes much higher than those passenger vehicles, often hundreds of kilometers in altitude).

The speed necessary to achieve orbit is partly a function of the mass of the body being orbited, but it is also a function of its diameter, and whether or not it has an atmosphere. If the earth were a point mass, an object tossed out at an altitude equivalent to the earth radius (that is ground level) would have very little velocity, but it would have a lot of potential energy. It would fall, gain speed, whip around the center and come back up to the person who had tossed it. That is, it would orbit. So even for the relatively low-energy suborbital vehicles discussed in this post, the reason that they’re not orbital is simply that the planet gets in the way.

One other interesting point is that, under the definition above, subsonic “parabolic” aircraft flights in the atmosphere, to offer half a minute or so of weightlessness (offered by the Zero G company), are suborbital flights, in terms of their trajectory. I put “parabolic” in quotes because in actuality, if properly flown, they are really elliptical sections, as all orbits and suborbits are. The parabola is just a close approximation if you assume a flat earth, which is a valid assumption for the short distances involved. Galileo did his original artillery tables based on flat earth, which is why beginning physics students model cannonball problems as parabolas, but modern long-range artillery has to account for the earth curvature, and it does calculate as elliptical trajectories.

Finally, one more extension. Ignoring the atmosphere, every artillery shell fired, every ball thrown or hit, every long jumper, every person who simply hops up into the air, is in a suborbit. The primary distinction for the vehicles discussed is that they are in a suborbit that reaches a specific altitude (at least a hundred kilometers to officially be in “space”), and leaves the atmosphere.

Clear as mud?