A camera aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has started generating tantalizing views of Pluto rotating on its sharply tilted axis, presenting patches of bright and dark material as it spins around a pole that appears to be covered with a cap of ice.

Using “deconvolution” techniques developed to sharpen the images of the Hubble Space Telescope before the spherical aberration in its primary mirror was corrected by spacewalking astronauts in 1990, the New Horizons  team has produced still images and animations based on those images with slightly better resolution than the Hubble.

“We’re starting to get imagery that shows us features that go beyond where no Hubble has gone before,” said Hubble-servicing astronaut John Grunsfeld, now NASA’s associate administrator for science.

The images were collected by the nuclear-powered probe’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri), with a resolution of about 4 pixels across the entire surface of Pluto. Ultimately the black-and-white camera will produce images that completely fill its field of view, with a resolution as fine as 70 meters per pixel at the surface, according to Principal Investigator Alan Stern.

Those images, which will be collected as New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, will help answer questions raised by observations of Pluto by the Hubble and other instruments more than 3 billion mi. away orbiting Earth. Spectroscopy and other measurements at that range suggest that the polar cap and other bright spots may be frozen nitrogen precipitated from the atmosphere, but close-up measurements should clear up some unanswered questions about the atmosphere and other features of the dwarf planet.

“Pluto has been drawing away from the Sun, and yet its atmosphere has been becoming more and more massive,” Stern said. “That may be due to a thermal lag, the same reason that the hottest month of the year in the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth isn’t the longest day of the year, in June … We understand a lot about the physics of how to model this atmosphere, but we don’t yet have enough of the data to accurately predict what will happen to the pressure in the future, because we don’t know which ices lie where, and we don’t have high-resolution maps to tell us the reflectivity, which also affects the temperatures distribution on the planet.”

Imagery will get better and better as New Horizons draws closer to Pluto. Hal Weaver, the project scientist, said the images released April 29 were collected between April 12-19, four per “visit” with the camera, to cover one full rotation of the dwarf planet. Lorri will be commanded to begin imaging the planet again on May 8, with eight high-resolution images per visit and two or three visits a day, through May 14. The data will be downlinked between May 15-27, with release of a higher-resolution animation of Pluto rotating while its large moon Charon orbits above due at mid-month.

Beginning on May 28, plans call for Lorri to begin daily observations, with better and better resolution as the spacecraft gets closer to Pluto. While its enhanced images already are higher resolution that the Hubble, its sensitivity – the ability to detect faint objects – does not yet equal that of the Earth-orbiting space telescope. Aside from Charon, which is so large it essentially makes Pluto a binary object, Lorri so far has not detected any of the other four moons discovered with the Hubble.

“In about another month we’ll be having the same resolution on Charon that we have on Pluto now,” Weaver said. “So we’ll start to maybe tease out some details about changes in brightness across Charon’s surface, and then it just gets better and better.”