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AFP, LOS ANGELES

Austrian athlete Felix Baumgartner plans to try to break the world free fall record by jumping from a helium balloon nearly 37km off the ground.

He also hopes to become the first person to break the sound barrier without an aircraft, the organizers of the event announced.

“I like a challenge,” Baumgartner said in a statement on Tuesday.

Baumgartner’s previous free fall ventures have included jumping from the top of the World Financial Center T101 in Taipei and from the Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Baumgartner, 41, plans to make the jump this year.

He is aiming at two other world records as well: the highest manned balloon flight and the free fall of longest duration, which is estimated at five minutes, 30 seconds.

The balloon is scheduled to take off when the weather allows it later this year from Roswell, New Mexico, where Baumgartner plans to land after deploying his parachute.

He is being financed in the world-record attempt by the Austrian beverage company Red Bull.

In a message posted on Tuesday on their Web site, www.redbullstratos.com, the sponsors said that “after a successful leap into near-space, Felix and his team want to give the world information that will help put people safely in these hostile environments and rejuvenate the old space race spirit.”

The Austrian athlete is expected to break the sound barrier of 1,110kph at the upper reaches of his fall, where the air would be so thin it would create little resistance to his falling body.

As he approaches the surface of the earth, denser air is likely to slow his fall, according to the posting on the Red Bull Web site.

Jonathan Clark, the project’s medical director, said the jump would explore the effects of acceleration to supersonic speed on the human body.

“Does a man without an aircraft have the ability to survive supersonic speeds?” the Red Bull statement asked.

The current free fall record is held by former US Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger, who jumped from 31km up in 1960 from the Excelsior III, a gondola lifted by helium balloons.

Kittinger has been hired as a special advisor and “mentor” for the flight by Baumgartner.

Red Bull said that as a scientific project, the jump “could start the new standard for protective space clothes or special parachutes designed for speeds over 700 mph [1,120kph].”

The experiment might also “benefit our military pilots who fly high-altitude missions up to 24,000m and astronauts looking for a way to leave a broken spacecraft,” the Red Bull statement said.

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