Intracluster light (ICL) is diffuse light from stars that are gravitationally bound not to individual member galaxies, but to the halo of galaxy clusters. Leading theories1,2 predict that the ICL fraction, defined by the ratio of the ICL to the total light, rapidly decreases with increasing redshift, to the level of a few per cent at z > 1. However, observational studies have remained inconclusive about the fraction beyond redshift unity because, to date, only two clusters in this redshift regime have been investigated. One shows a much lower fraction than the mean value at low redshift3, whereas the other possesses a fraction similar to the low-redshift value4. Here we report an ICL study of ten galaxy clusters at 1 ≲ z ≲ 2 based on deep infrared imaging data. Contrary to the leading theories, our study finds that ICL is already abundant at z ≳ 1, with a mean ICL fraction of approximately 17%. Moreover, no significant correlation between cluster mass and ICL fraction or between ICL colour and cluster-centric radius is observed. Our findings suggest that gradual stripping can no longer be the dominant mechanism of ICL formation. Instead, our study supports the scenario wherein the dominant ICL production occurs in tandem with the formation and growth of the brightest cluster galaxies and/or through the accretion of preprocessed stray stars.
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